Growth hormone is widely used clinically to promote growth and anabolism and for other purposes. Its actions are mediated via the growth hormone receptor, both directly by tyrosine kinase activation and indirectly by induction of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Insensitivity to growth hormone (Laron syndrome) can result from mutations in the growth hormone receptor and can be treated with IGF-1. This treatment is, however, not fully effective owing to the loss of the direct actions of growth hormone and altered availability of exogenous IGF-1. Excessive activation of the growth hormone receptor by circulating growth hormone results in gigantism and acromegaly, whereas cell transformation and cancer can occur in response to autocrine activation of the receptor. Advances in understanding the mechanism of receptor activation have led to a model in which the growth hormone receptor exists as a constitutive dimer. Binding of the hormone realigns the subunits by rotation and closer apposition, resulting in juxtaposition of the catalytic domains of the associated tyrosine-protein kinase JAK2 below the cell membrane. This change results in activation of JAK2 by transphosphorylation, then phosphorylation of receptor tyrosines in the cytoplasmic domain, which enables binding of adaptor proteins, as well as direct phosphorylation of target proteins. This model is discussed in the light of salient information from closely related class 1 cytokine receptors, such as the erythropoietin, prolactin and thrombopoietin receptors.