Influenza A virus is a major public health threat, killing more than 30,000 per year in the USA alone, sickening millions and inflicting substantial economic costs. Novel influenza virus strains emerge periodically to which humans have little immunity, resulting in devastating pandemics. The 1918 pandemic killed nearly 700,000 Americans and 40 million people worldwide. Pandemics in 1957 and 1968, while much less devastating than 1918, also caused tens of thousands of deaths in the USA. The influenza A virus is capable of enormous genetic variability, both by continuous, gradual mutation and by reassortment of gene segments between viruses. Both the 1957 and 1968 pandemic strains are thought to have originated as reassortants, in which one or both human-adapted viral surface proteins were replaced by proteins from avian influenza virus strains. Analyses of the surface proteins of the 1918 pandemic strain, however, suggest that this strain may have had a different origin. The haemagglutinin gene segment of the virus may have come directly from an avian source different from those currently circulating. Alternatively, the virus, or some of its gene segments, may have evolved in an intermediate host before emerging as a human pathogen. Determining whether pandemic influenza virus strains can emerge via different pathways will affect the scope and focus of surveillance and prevention efforts.