Conjugative plasmids were common in enterobacteria isolated before the medical use of antibiotics. Plasmid F of Escherichia coli K-12 was one example and we identified others in over 20% of a collection of strains isolated between 1917 and 1954, the Murray collection. In the past 25 years, conjugative plasmids encoding antibiotic resistances have become common in bacteria of the same genera as those of the Murray Collection--Salmonella, Shigella, Klebsiella, Proteus, Escherichia. The present study was made to show whether the 'pre-antibiotic' plasmids belonged to the same groups, as defined by incompatibility tests (Inc groups), as modern R plasmids. Of 84 such plasmids established in E. coli K-12, none with antibiotic resistance determinants, 65 belonged to the same groups as present resistance (R) plasmids. Thus the remarkable way in which medically important bacteria have acquired antibiotic resistance in the past 25 years seems to have been by the insertion of new genes into existing plasmids rather than by the spread of previously rare plasmids.