Abstract This article presents an overview and appraisal of work published during the 25-year history of Sociology of Health and Illness that has contributed to our understandings of lay experiences of health and illness. It highlights an important and welcome shift from an ‘outsider’ perspective as epitomised in the Parsonian concept of the ‘sick role’ to one that focuses directly upon people's subjective experiences within the contexts of their daily lives. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which early work by Bury (1982), Charmaz (1983), and Williams (1984) has helped pave the way to an understanding of lay experiences that is sensitive to a broad range of micro- and macro-contextual influences. The article looks to the future as well as the past by pointing to ‘uncharted terrain’ and ‘missing voices’ within the medical sociology literature. It discusses some recently published work in the Journal that has opened the door to what may prove to be a 21st century sociology of health and illness. It concludes with a call for medical sociologists to be more open-minded to the use of novel and seemingly unconventional theoretical and methodological approaches.