The significance of metastatic disease in the lymph nodes of the neck as a critical independent prognostic factor in head and neck cancer has long been appreciated. Although 19th century surgeons attempted to remove involved cervical lymph nodes at the time of resection of the primary cancer, a systematic approach to en bloc removal of cervical lymph node disease, described in detail by Jawdyński in 1888 and popularized and illustrated by Crile in the early 20th century, provided consistent and more effective treatment, and forms the basis of our current techniques. During the first half of the 20th century, developments included preservation of the accessory nerve in selected cases, elective neck dissection performed in association with resection of various primary tumors, bilateral neck dissection and limited neck dissection. The greatest impetus to the status of radical neck dissection came from Martin, whose technique consisted of resection of all lymph nodes from level I-V together with the accessory nerve, internal jugular vein, sternocleidomastoid muscle and various other structures in a single block of resected tissue. Martin's technical precepts were followed until the latter part of the 20th century when modifications in technique began to find general acceptance. The first description of an effective technique of modified radical neck dissection was published in Spanish by Suárez, in 1963. This technique, which preserves important structures, such as the internal jugular vein, sternocleidomastoid muscle and accessory nerve, was refined and popularized by various authors who published their results in the English language literature during the period from 1964 through 1990 and beyond. Modified or "functional" neck dissection avoids much of the morbidity of radical neck dissection while achieving equivalent degrees of control of regional disease in properly selected cases. By the late 20th century, the concept of selective neck dissection, consisting of resection of only the nodal groups at greatest risk for metastasis from a given primary site, was studied and developed. These limited dissections are now widely employed for elective, and in properly selected cases, therapeutic treatment and staging of the neck, and have been proposed for limited cervical recurrences after various chemoradiation protocols. Prospective studies have demonstrated similar rates of neck recurrence and survival after elective selective neck dissection compared to elective modified radical neck dissection. Other modifications and factors applied to treatment of cervical lymph node disease include the use of adjuvant and neo-adjuvant radiation and chemotherapy, a revised system for classification of neck dissections, the identification of various adverse prognostic factors such as extracapsular spread and extranodal soft tissue deposits, application of sentinel lymph node biopsy to staging of the neck, the use of immunohistochemical and molecular techniques for identification of lymph node metastases not detectable by light microscopy, and the possibility of endoscopic neck dissection. The authors conclude that neck dissection, as evolved over the past century, is a fundamental tool in management of patients with head and neck cancer, but is still a work in progress.