With the exception of distant metastasis, the presence of cervical lymph node metastasis is the single most adverse independent prognostic factor in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Surgical removal of metastatic cervical lymph nodes had been attempted during the late nineteenth century, with varying techniques and poor results. A systematic approach to en bloc removal of cervical lymph node disease, described in detail by Jawdyński at the end of the nineteenth century and popularized and illustrated by Crile in the early twentieth century, provided consistent and more effective treatment and forms the basis of our current techniques. The concepts of radical neck dissection, employed extensively by Martin, were followed with almost religious consistency by most head and neck surgeons until the late twentieth century, when the principles of ‘functional’ neck dissection, developed by Suárez and popularized by Bocca, Gavilán, Ballantyne, Byers and others, led to the acceptance of modified radical neck dissection as treatment for lymph node disease in various stages. More recently, selective neck dissection, involving removal of nodes confined to the levels at greatest risk of metastasis from primary tumours at various sites, has become accepted practice for elective and, in some instances, therapeutic treatment of the neck. In the future, sentinel lymph node biopsy and the use of molecular pathological analyses may be employed to predict the presence of occult cervical disease, thus directing therapy to patients at greatest risk and sparing those without regional metastasis.