By appreciating the influence of surface forces on lung mechanics, discovering pulmonary surfactant, and then recognizing its deficiency states a small number of investigators began the first 30 years of pulmonary surfactant research. These investigators had different backgrounds and took diverse approaches to understand surface forces in the lung. Their careers provide a fascinating study of the means by which new discoveries are made. After recognizing the critical importance of surfactant, investigators turned to a series of questions that obviously needed to be answered and they attempted to learn the following: 1) how to quantitate surfactant; 2) its biochemical and structural composition; 3) how it leaves the alveolar surface after secretion; and 4) its role in lung diseases. This research established the basis for pursuing the cellular and molecular biology of surfactant.