This article reviews exogenous surfactant therapy and its use in mitigating acute lung injury (ALI) and the acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) in infants, children, and adults. Biophysical and animal research documenting surfactant dysfunction in ALI/ARDS is described, and the scientific rationale for treatment with exogenous surfactant is discussed. Major emphasis is placed on reviewing clinical studies of surfactant therapy in pediatric and adult patients who have ALI/ARDS. Particular advantages from surfactant therapy in direct pulmonary forms of these syndromes are described. Also discussed are additional factors affecting the efficacy of exogenous surfactants in ALI/ARDS.