The origins of the epithelial cells participating in the development, tissue homeostasis, and cancer of the human breast are poorly understood. However, emerging evidence suggests a role for adult tissue-specific stem cells in these processes. In a hierarchical manner, these generate the two main mammary cell lineages, producing an increasing number of cells with distinct properties. Understanding the biological characteristics of human breast stem cells and their progeny is crucial in attempts to compare the features of normal stem cells and cancer precursor cells and distinguish these from nonprecursor cells and cells from the bulk of a tumor. A historical overview of research on human breast stem cells in primary tissue and in culture reveals the progress that has been made in this area, whereas a focus on the cell-of-origin and reprogramming that occurs during neoplastic conversion provides insight into the enigmatic way in which human breast cancers are skewed toward the luminal epithelial lineage.