The manner in which a mutually acceptable co-existence of biomaterials and tissues is developed and sustained has been the focus of attention in biomaterials science for many years, and forms the foundation of the subject of biocompatibility. There are many ways in which materials and tissues can be brought into contact such that this co-existence may be compromised, and the search for biomaterials that are able to provide for the best performance in devices has been based upon the understanding of all the interactions within biocompatibility phenomena. Our understanding of the mechanisms of biocompatibility has been restricted whilst the focus of attention has been long-term implantable devices. In this paper, over 50 years of experience with such devices is analysed and it is shown that, in the vast majority of circumstances, the sole requirement for biocompatibility in a medical device intended for long-term contact with the tissues of the human body is that the material shall do no harm to those tissues, achieved through chemical and biological inertness. Rarely has an attempt to introduce biological activity into a biomaterial been clinically successful in these applications. This essay then turns its attention to the use of biomaterials in tissue engineering, sophisticated cell, drug and gene delivery systems and applications in biotechnology, and shows that here the need for specific and direct interactions between biomaterials and tissue components has become necessary, and with this a new paradigm for biocompatibility has emerged. It is believed that once the need for this change is recognised, so our understanding of the mechanisms of biocompatibility will markedly improve.