Two fundamental problems in cancer research are identification of the normal cell within which cancer initiates and identification of the cell type capable of sustaining the growth of the neoplastic clone. There is overwhelming evidence that virtually all cancers are clonal and represent the progeny of a single cell. What is less clear for most cancers is which cells within the tumor clone possess tumorigenic or 'cancer stem cell' (CSC) properties and are capable of maintaining tumor growth. The concept that only a subpopulation of rare CSC is responsible for maintenance of the neoplasm emerged nearly 50 years ago. Testing of this hypothesis is most advanced for the hematopoietic system due to the establishment of functional in vitro and in vivo assays for stem and progenitor cells at all stages of development. This body of work led to conclusive proof for CSC with the identification and purification of leukemic stem cells capable of repopulating NOD/SCID mice. This review will focus on the historical development of the CSC hypothesis, the mechanisms necessary to subvert normal developmental programs, and the identification of the cell in which these leukemogenic events first occur.