Dendritic cells are antigen-presenting cells derived from the hematopoietic stem cell. The dendritic cell family includes Langerhans' cells (CD1a-positive dendritic cells of the skin), and antigen-presenting cells that are found in the lymphoreticular system and throughout the organ parenchyme. Dendritic cells play a key role in both the primary and secondary immune responses. Several studies indicate that these cells participate in antitumor immunity, tumor surveillance, graft-versus-host disease, and in the pathogenesis of clinical syndromes of unknown origin or those induced by viruses, such as the human immunodeficiency virus. Different disorders are characterized by an abnormal proliferation and accumulation of dendritic cells; for example, the Langerhans' histiocytes, which accumulate in Langerhans' cell histiocytosis. In this review the immunophenotypic, morphological, and functional characteristics of the dendritic cell family is described. The clinical and laboratory studies suggesting a unique role for these cells in various syndromes and diseases are reviewed. The Langerhans' cell histiocytoses and the malignant disorders associated with transformation of cells belonging to the dendritic cell family, are discussed.