Over the past few decades the concept of (human) dignity has deeply pervaded medical ethics. Appeals to dignity, however, are often unclear. As a result some prefer to eliminate the concept from medical ethics, whereas others try to render it useful in this context. We think that appeals to dignity in medical ethics can be clarified by considering the concept from an historical perspective. Firstly, on the basis of historical texts we propose a framework for defining the concept in medical debates. The framework shows that dignity can occur in a relational, an unconditional, a subjective and a Kantian form. Interestingly, all forms relate to one concept since they have four features in common: dignity refers, in a restricted sense, to the ‘special status of human beings’; it is based on essential human characteristics; the subject of dignity should live up to it; and it is a vulnerable concept, it can be lost or violated. We argue that being explicit about the meaning of dignity will prevent dignity from becoming a conversation-stopper in moral debate. Secondly, an historical perspective on dignity shows that it is not yet time to dispose of dignity in medical ethics. At least Kantian and relational dignity can be made useful in medical ethics.