Just over a century ago Paul Ehrlich received the Nobel Prize for his studies of immunity. This review describes one of his legacies, the histochemical description of the mast cell, and the research that has ensued since then. After a long period of largely descriptive studies, which revealed little about the biological role of the mast cell, the field was galvanized in the 1950s by the recognition that the mast cell was the main repository of histamine and a key participant in anaphylactic reactions. Although the mast cell was long-viewed in these terms, recent research has now shown that the mast cell also plays a key role in innate and adaptive immune responses, autoimmune disease, and possibly tissue homeostasis by virtue of its expression of a diverse array of receptors and biologically active products. In addition, the responsiveness of mast cells to immunological and pathological stimulants is highly modulated by the tissue cytokine environment and by synergistic, or inhibitory, interactions among the various mast cell receptor systems. This once enigmatic cell of Paul Ehrlich has proved to be both adaptable and multifunctional.