Cytogerontology, the science of cellular ageing, originated in 1881 with the prediction by August Weismann that the somatic cells of higher animals have limited division potential. Weismann's prediction was derived by considering the role of natural selection in regulating the duration of an organism's life. For various reasons, Weismann's ideas on ageing fell into neglect following his death in 1914, and cytogerontology has only reappeared as a major research area following the demonstration by Hayflick and Moorhead in the early 1960s that diploid human fibroblasts are restricted to a finite number of divisions in vitro. In this review we give a detailed account of Weismann's theory, and we reveal that his ideas were both more extensive in their scope and more pertinent to current research than is generally recognised. We also appraise the progress which has been made over the past hundred years in investigating the causes of ageing, with particular emphasis being given to (i) the evolution of ageing, and (ii) ageing at the cellular level. We critically assess the current state of knowledge in these areas and recommend a series of points as primary targets for future research.