In the summer of 1976, a mysterious epidemic of fatal respiratory disease in Philadelphia launched an intensive investigation that resulted in the definition of a new family of pathogenic bacteria, the Legionellaceae. In retrospect, members of the family had been isolated from clinical specimens as early as 1943. Unsolved epidemics of acute respiratory disease dating to the 1950s were subsequently attributed to the newly described pathogens. In the intervening years, the Legionellaceae have been firmly established as important causes of sporadic and epidemic respiratory disease. The sources of the infecting bacteria are environmental, and geographic variation in the frequency of infection has been documented. Airborne dissemination of bacteria from cooling towers and evaporative condensers has been responsible for some epidemics, but potable water systems are perhaps more important sources. The mode of transmission from drinking water is unclear. The Legionellaceae are gram-negative, facultative, intracellular pathogens. The resident alveolar macrophage, usually an effective antibacterial defense, is the primary site of growth. Cell-mediated immunity appears to be the most important immunological defense; the role of humoral immunity is less clear. Erythromycin remains the antibiotic of choice for therapy of infected patients, but identification and eradication of environmental sources are also essential for the control of infection.