The epithelial ovarian carcinomas, which make up more than 85% of human ovarian cancer, arise in the ovarian surface epithelium (OSE). The etiology and early events in the progression of these carcinomas are among the least understood of all major human malignancies because there are no appropriate animal models, and because methods to culture OSE have become available only recently. The objective of this article is to review the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie the control of normal and neoplastic OSE cell growth, differentiation, and expression of indicators of neoplastic progression. We begin with a brief discussion of the development of OSE, from embryonic to the adult. The pathological and genetic changes of OSE during neoplastic progression are next summarized. The histological characteristics of OSE cells in culture are also described. Finally, the potential involvement of hormones, growth factors, and cytokines is discussed in terms of their contribution to our understanding of the physiology of normal OSE and ovarian cancer development.