Mathematical models of mosquito-borne pathogen transmission originated in the early twentieth century to provide insights into how to most effectively combat malaria. The foundations of the Ross-Macdonald theory were established by 1970. Since then, there has been a growing interest in reducing the public health burden of mosquito-borne pathogens and an expanding use of models to guide their control. To assess how theory has changed to confront evolving public health challenges, we compiled a bibliography of 325 publications from 1970 through 2010 that included at least one mathematical model of mosquito-borne pathogen transmission and then used a 79-part questionnaire to classify each of 388 associated models according to its biological assumptions. As a composite measure to interpret the multidimensional results of our survey, we assigned a numerical value to each model that measured its similarity to 15 core assumptions of the Ross-Macdonald model. Although the analysis illustrated a growing acknowledgement of geographical, ecological and epidemiological complexities in modelling transmission, most models during the past 40 years closely resemble the Ross-Macdonald model. Modern theory would benefit from an expansion around the concepts of heterogeneous mosquito biting, poorly mixed mosquito-host encounters, spatial heterogeneity and temporal variation in the transmission process.