Midwifery is a technically specialized area of nursing work and, consequently, particularly vulnerable to the effects of developments in medical knowledge and technology. Its social relations, with clients and with the medical profession, are, however, very similar to those of other branches of nursing which emerged outside the hospitals. We have already discussed the work of handy women and private duty nurses at some length, so that our account here begins directly from the official versions of the foundation of district nursing and health visiting. In discussing these, however, it is important to acknowledge the marked imbalance of primary scholarship on the two groups. This is not entirely coincidental: the importance of maternal and child welfare in national policy since the late nineteenth century (Gilbert 1966, Thane 1981, Titmuss 1958, Dwork 1986) has been accentuated by its interest to feminist social historians (e.g. Davin 1978, Dyehouse 1978, Lewis 1980) and to the debate between McKeown (1965) and his critics, especially Winter (1977, 1979, 1982), on the causes of improvements in infant mortality in the twentieth century. As a result, the policy context of developments in health visiting is relatively well defined and has been the subject of a number of specialized treatments (Davies 1988, Dingwall 1974, 1977b, 1983b, Robson 1983, 1986). District nursing, on the other hand, has been relatively neglected, apart from the useful books by Stocks (1960) and Baly (1987) on the history of the Queen’s Institute. This partly reflects its very invisibility in policy debate. It was not a subject for repeated official investigations or government initiatives. Its past is not preserved in major official archives but in the scattered records of local voluntary associations which, if they have survived at all, are less readily located and more laborious to collate.
Histories of district nursing traditionally begin from the activities