Primary nursing is a relatively new phenomenon in the organization of ward-based nursing. This paper seeks to answer the question of what lies behind primary nursing's sudden and startling rise in popularity. Factors within nursing which are implicated include most importantly the adoption of the nursing process, and the attempt to provide truly individualized patient care. Nursing's search for professional status has played its part, primary nursing frequently being seen as a key strategy in its achievement. Other areas of wider social change have also had an impact, from the nascent dominance of new right political/social values, to the micropolitical scene within the British National Health Service. While appearing to be the ideal answer to some of nursing's current problems, primary nursing contains some inherent contradictions, most evident being those surrounding the concept of accountability. It may also threaten the cohesiveness of the nursing team on the ward, and may lead to the uncovering of conflicts between doctors and nurses. Finally, perhaps one of the major reasons for its continuing success is the way it brings together the various nursing interest groups and current managerialism in the NHS.