This article is based on a lecture presented at the Novartis Prize ceremony at the International Congress of Immunology in July 2001. It gives a personal and historical perspective on the research performed by the author and his colleagues during the development and pursuit of the model of ‘missing-self recognition’ for natural killer (NK) cells. This model is based on the idea that one important function of NK cells is to detect and eliminate cells because they fail to express normal self markers. Further mechanistic models predicted the existence of inhibitory major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I specific receptors, later identified by the fellow Novartis laureates contributing in this issue. The article covers the first decade (1980–1990) of research on this concept. It discusses factors contributing to the formulation of a hypothesis, the use of predictions and experimental test models, the importance of international collaborations and reagent exchange, and several other aspects that allowed the progression of this research project. Finally, the perspective of today’s knowledge is used to discuss some surprising findings where the missing-self hypothesis made the wrong predictions, or at least failed to make the correct ones.