Bacteria, yeasts, and viruses are rapidly killed on metallic copper surfaces, and the term "contact killing" has been coined for this process. While the phenomenon was already known in ancient times, it is currently receiving renewed attention. This is due to the potential use of copper as an antibacterial material in health care settings. Contact killing was observed to take place at a rate of at least 7 to 8 logs per hour, and no live microorganisms were generally recovered from copper surfaces after prolonged incubation. The antimicrobial activity of copper and copper alloys is now well established, and copper has recently been registered at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the first solid antimicrobial material. In several clinical studies, copper has been evaluated for use on touch surfaces, such as door handles, bathroom fixtures, or bed rails, in attempts to curb nosocomial infections. In connection to these new applications of copper, it is important to understand the mechanism of contact killing since it may bear on central issues, such as the possibility of the emergence and spread of resistant organisms, cleaning procedures, and questions of material and object engineering. Recent work has shed light on mechanistic aspects of contact killing. These findings will be reviewed here and juxtaposed with the toxicity mechanisms of ionic copper. The merit of copper as a hygienic material in hospitals and related settings will also be discussed.