Primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH) is a progressive disease characterised by raised pulmonary vascular resistance, which results in diminished right-heart function due to increased right ventricular afterload. PPH occurs most commonly in young and middle-aged women; mean survival from onset of symptoms is 2-3 years. The aetiology of PPH is unknown, although familial disease accounts for roughly 10% of cases, which suggests a genetic predisposition. Current theories on pathogenesis focus on abnormalities in interaction between endothelial and smooth-muscle cells. Endothelia-cell injury may result in an imbalance in endothelium-derived mediators, favouring vasoconstriction. Defects in ion-channel activity in smooth-muscle cells in the pulmonary artery may contribute to vasoconstriction and vascular proliferation. Diagnostic testing primarily excludes secondary causes. Catheterisation is necessary to assess haemodynamics and to evaluate vasoreactivity during acute drug challenge. Decrease in pulmonary vascular resistance in response to acute vasodilator challenge occurs in about 30% of patients, and predicts a good response to chronic therapy with oral calcium-channel blockers. For patients unresponsive during acute testing, continuous intravenous epoprostenol (prostacyclin, PGI2) improves haemodynamics and exercise tolerance, and prolongs survival in severe PPH (NYHA functional class III-IV). Thoracic transplantation is reserved for patients who fail medical therapy. We review the progress made in diagnosis and treatment of PPH over the past 20 years.