Obituary: Elaine Wilkie

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The Independent Culture
IF HEALTH visitors broke the mould of nurse education by moving into universities, as Elaine Wilkie, the first director of the Council for the Education and Training of Health Visitors, considered, it was she who set them in the direction to do it.

Wilkie determined to get health visitor training out of the hands of medical officers, who were their employers. And she was emphatic that health visitors should first train first as nurses. She was a pioneering educationalist while herself suffering the continuing pain of rheumatoid arthritis and for much of the time also being a carer for her invalid mother.

Elaine Wilkie was born in Edinburgh in 1915 and went to George Watson's Ladies College. When she was 12 her father, a grain broker, died, leaving the family in straitened circumstances. With a nursing background on her mother's side, Wilkie chose to train as a nurse and to do so at King's College Hospital in London, rather than in Edinburgh. (Her two much older brothers became surgeons.)

After qualifying as a state registered nurse she trained as a midwife. She then took a health visitor's course at the Royal Sanitary Institute (later the Royal Society of Medicine). She served as a health visitor from 1941 to 1947 in Caterham, Surrey, where the large Guards depot during the Second World War created social problems.

She left to run the health visitors' course at the Royal College of Nursing. While a full-time tutor, she took a BA in psychology at Birkbeck College, London. Always with a wide view of nurse education, in 1959 she was appointed organising tutor at the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Manchester University, under Professor Fraser Brockington. The diploma course in community health nursing - leading to a qualification as state registered nurse and health visitor - which she launched, developed into the first UK degree in nursing.

In her efforts to reshape the training of health visitors and protect their status, Wilkie had to battle with medical officers of health, with the Royal Sanitary Institute, and with the emerging profession of social workers. The last she experienced in her next posts - in 1962 as chief professional adviser to the new Council for the Training of Health Visitors, and when in 1971 this became the Council for the Education and Training of Health Visitors, as its director.

"There had always been a shadowy area of responsibility in the work of health visitors and social workers and a possible area of overlap," she wrote. "Over the years this has been the cause of debate and, on occasion, dispute concerning their respective roles," It surfaced when the Social Work Council was set up in parallel with that for the education and training of health visitors.

Wilkie wrote a history of the latter in 1979. Though it bore all the marks of an official history, it hinted, mainly between the lines, at the difficulties she faced. "If you want style, madam, you must pay for it" is a shop assistant's remark which she uses to head one chapter.

There were no central funds for the council. In the early days Wilkie maintained a personal contact with the new training schools but soon she found the administrative content of her work precluded this and certainly any participation in any research, to which as an academic, she was inclined, was impossible. She was frustrated that it took 12 years for action on the 1956 Jameson report on health visiting. She wrote another book in 1984, Singular Anomaly: A Case Study of the Council for the Education and Training of Health Visitors.

In 1975 Wilkie retired. She was appointed OBE, the Royal College of Nursing elected her a Fellow, she gained a doctorate at Edinburgh University - and the Briggs report on nursing made a recommendation undermining what she had sought to achieve. It said that health visitors could be trained in just six months.

Elaine Wilkie's hobby was music, including singing in church choirs, Church of England when in London, Church of Scotland when in Edinburgh. She was a committed Christian. All her life she retained her Scottish brogue and her love for the country she left to pursue her career, and on retirement she went back to live in Edinburgh.

Elizabeth Elaine Wilkie, nurse and educationalist: born Edinburgh 23 August 1915; OBE 1975; died Edinburgh 14 December 1998.