The ontogenetic development of the nucleus ambiguus was studied in a series of human embryos and fetuses ranging from 3 to 12.5 weeks of menstrual age (4 to 66 mm crown-rump length). They were prepared by Nissl and silver methods. Nucleus ambiguus neuroblasts, whose neurites extend towards and into the IXth and rostral Xth nerve roots, appear in the medial motor column of 4-6-week-old embryos (4.25-11 mm). These cells then migrate laterally (6.5 weeks, 14 mm) to a position near the dorsal motor nucleus of X. At 7 weeks (15 mm), nucleus ambiguus cells begin their migration, which progresses rostrocaudally, into their definitive ventrolateral position. The basic pattern of organization of the nucleus is established in its rostral region at 8 weeks (22.2-24 mm) and extends into its caudal region by 9 weeks (32 mm), when its nearly adult organization is evident. Cells having the characteristics of mature neurons first appear rostrally in the nucleus during the 8.5-9-week period (24.5-32 mm), gradually increase in number, and constitute the entire nucleus at 12.5 weeks (65.5 mm). Definitive neuronal subgroups first appear at 10 weeks (37.5 mm) in the large rostral nuclear region. These features suggest that the human nucleus ambiguus develops along a rostrocaudal temporospatial gradient. Evidence indicates that function of nucleus ambiguus neurons, manifested by fetal reflex swallowing, occurs after the cells migrate into their definitive position, establish the definitive nuclear pattern, and exhibit mature characteristics.