The polyamines, spermidine and spermine, were first discovered in 1678 by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. In the early part of the 20th century their structure was determined and their pathway of biosynthesis established. The polyamines are essential elements of cells from all species. They are required for optimum cell growth, and cells where polyamine production has been prevented by mutation, or blocked by inhibitors, require exogenous provision of at least one polyamine for continued survival. Despite this critical function, the polyamines have not attracted as much attention as they deserve in the wider field of biochemistry and cell biology. They are rarely mentioned in standard textbooks, despite over 75000 research papers having been written on the subject since 1900, and more than half (54%) were published after 1990. There have been a number of books dedicated to the polyamines published and "The Guide to the Polyamines" by Seymour Cohen deserves mention as a work of outstanding scholarship describing "everything you ever wanted to know about the polyamines" in exquisite detail. The current volume of Essays in Biochemistry has a much humbler aim: to introduce the polyamines to interested researchers and students, and to describe how they are associated with, and might be utilized as a target for intervention in major diseases such as cancer.