Pulmonary surfactant is a complex and highly surface active material composed of lipids and proteins which is found in the fluid lining the alveolar surface of the lungs. Surfactant prevents alveolar collapse at low lung volume, and preserves bronchiolar patency during normal and forced respiration (biophysical functions). In addition, it is involved in the protection of the lungs from injuries and infections caused by inhaled particles and micro-organisms (immunological, non-biophysical functions). Pulmonary surfactant can only be harvested by lavage procedures, which may disrupt its pre-existing biophysical and biochemical micro-organization. These limitations must always be considered when interpreting ex vivo studies of pulmonary surfactant. A pathophysiological role for surfactant was first appreciated in premature infants with respiratory distress syndrome and hyaline membrane disease, a condition which is nowadays routinely treated with exogenous surfactant replacement. Biochemical surfactant abnormalities of varying degrees have been described in obstructive lung diseases (asthma, bronchiolitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and following lung transplantation), infectious and suppurative lung diseases (cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, and human immunodeficiency virus), adult respiratory distress syndrome, pulmonary oedema, other diseases specific to infants (chronic lung disease of prematurity, and surfactant protein-B deficiency), interstitial lung diseases (sarcoidosis, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis), pulmonary alveolar proteinosis, following cardiopulmonary bypass, and in smokers. For some pulmonary conditions surfactant replacement therapy is on the horizon, but for the majority much more needs to be learnt about the pathophysiological role the observed surfactant abnormalities may have.