For centuries, novel strains of influenza have emerged to produce human pandemics, causing widespread illness, death, and disruption. There have been four influenza pandemics in the past hundred years. During this time, globalization processes, alongside advances in medicine and epidemiology, have altered the way these pandemics are experienced. Drawing on international case studies, this paper provides a review of the impact of past influenza pandemics, while examining the evolution of our understanding of, and response to, these viruses. This review argues that pandemic influenza is in part a consequence of human development, and highlights the importance of considering outbreaks within the context of shifting global landscapes. While progress in infectious disease prevention, control, and treatment has improved our ability to respond to such outbreaks, globalization processes relating to human behaviour, demographics, and mobility have increased the threat of pandemic emergence and accelerated global disease transmission. Preparedness planning must continue to evolve to keep pace with this heightened risk. Herein, we look to the past for insights on the pandemic experience, underlining both progress and persisting challenges. However, given the uncertain timing and severity of future pandemics, we emphasize the need for flexible policies capable of responding to change as such emergencies develop.