Antibiotic resistance is common in bacteria that cause disease in man and animals and is usually determined by plasmids. The prevalence of such plasmids, and the range of drugs to which they confer resistance, have increased greatly in the past 25 yr. It has become clear from work in many laboratories that plasmids have acquired resistance genes, of ultimately unknown origin, as insertions into their circular DNA. The intensive use of antibiotics since their introduction in the 1940s can explain the spread of plasmids that have acquired such genes but little is known of the incidence of plasmids in pathogenic bacteria before the widespread use of antibiotics in medicine. E.D.G. Murray collected strains of Enterobacteriaceae from 1917 to 1954; we now report that 24% of these encode information for the transfer of DNA from one bacterium to another. From at least 19% of the strains, conjugative plasmids carrying no antibiotic resistance were transferred to Escherichia coli K-12.