Around the world, traditionally the diagnosis of cancer and its prognosis was withheld from patients for centuries, due to the stigma and fears attached to it. This custom of ‘never telling’ precluded talking with patients about their feelings and how they were coping with illness and the threat of death. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, patient's right of access to information, coupled with the diminished stigma attached to cancer, encouraged physicians into a more open dialogue. In the majority of countries today, patients learn their diagnosis and know their treatment options. This change permitted the first formal psychosocial studies of patients in the 1950s, and the beginning of research into coping and development of interventions to improve quality of life. However, a second independent stigma, also present for centuries, has persisted: the stigma associated with mental disorders (even in the context of severe physical illness). This prejudice about mental problems has been a barrier to the integration of the psychosocial domain into total cancer care; the identification of patients who are distressed; and, patient's acceptance of psychological help. Despite these barriers, psychosocial oncology has developed worldwide, with a small, but active cadre of investigators and clinicians engaging in clinical, educational and research aspects of psycho-oncology. The International Psycho-Oncology Society (IPOS), since 1984, has brought them together. The Sutherland Memorial Lecture has honored nine individuals from five countries who have made major contributions to the field: 1982, Avery Weisman; 1984, Bernard Fox; 1987, Morton Bard; 1991, Margit von Kerekjarto; 1993, Ned Cassem; 1996, Steven Greer; 1998, Hiroomi Kawano; 2000, Robert Zittoun; and 2003, Jimmie Holland. The scientific base for psychosocial oncology is now secure with a body of knowledge, textbooks and journals which have led to the development of evidence–based clinical practice guidelines for psychosocial services in several countries. A benchmark now exists against which care can be monitored and accountability established. The next 25 years will see an improvement in the psychosocial care of patients, based on research that gives a scientific basis for interventions, and a reduction in the barriers to psychosocial care in cancer. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.