Pandemics are the most dramatic presentation of influenza. Three have occurred in the twentieth century: the 1918 H1N1 pandemic, the 1957 H2N2 pandemic, and the 1968 H3N2 pandemic. The tools of molecular epidemiology have been applied in an attempt to determine the origin of pandemic viruses and to understand what made them such successful pathogens. An excellent example of this avenue of research is the recent phylogenetic analysis of genes of the virus that caused the devastating 1918 pandemic. This analysis has been used to identify evolutionarily related influenza virus genes as a clue to the source of the pandemic of 1918. Molecular methods have been used to investigate the avian H5N1 and H9N2 influenza viruses that recently infected humans in Hong Kong. Antigenic, genetic, and epidemiologic analyses have also furthered our understanding of interpandemic influenza. Although many questions remain, advances of the past two decades have demonstrated that several widely held concepts concerning the global epidemiology of influenza were false.