Approximately 35 years ago a role of human papillomaviruses (HPV) in cervical cancer has been postulated. Today it is well established that this very heterogeneous virus family harbours important human carcinogens, causing not only the vast majority of cervical, but also a substantial proportion of other anogenital and head and neck cancers. In addition, specific types have been linked to certain cutaneous cancers. In females, HPV infections on a global scale account for more than 50% of infection-linked cancers, in males for barely 5%. Vaccines against the high risk HPV types 16 and 18 represent the first preventive vaccines directly developed to protect against a major human cancer (cervical carcinoma). This review will cover some of the historical aspects of papillomavirus research; it tries briefly to analyze the present state of linking HPV to human cancers and will discuss some emerging developments.