Since 1782 there has been continuing controversy concerning the curious central coloration referred to as "macular yellow," but no cumulative source of information on the subject exists. This paper reviews the research efforts of two centuries to determine the existence, nature, location, and function of a specialized pigment in the foveal region. Using white-light illumination, it is difficult to see a macular yellow spot in the living eye; it is best observed and documented by red-free ophthalmoscopy and blue-light monochromatic photography. Histologic, biochemical, and spectral absorption data suggest that the yellow color is due to a xanthophyllic pigment, lutein, that is distributed in all retinal layers internal to the outer nuclear layer, with greatest concentration in the outer and inner plexiform layers. Clinically absent in newborns, the pigment gradually accumulates from dietary sources and appears to serve both as an optical filter, by absorbing blue light and reducing chromatic aberration, and in a protective capacity, preventing actinic damage. The absorption characteristics of the yellow pigment contribute to the central dark spot seen during fluorescein angiography and to the risk of photocoagulation near the fovea. Its apparent absence in albinos and the reported functional improvement in certain degenerative retinopathies following supplemental xanthophyll administration suggest a possible role in hereditary or acquired maculopathies.