The panzootic of H5N1 influenza in birds has raised concerns that the virus will mutate to spread more readily in people, leading to a human pandemic. Mathematical models have been used to interpret past pandemics and outbreaks, and to thus model possible future pandemic scenarios and interventions. We review historical influenza outbreak and transmission data, and discuss the way in which modellers have used such sources to inform model structure and assumptions. We suggest that urban attack rates in the 1918–1919 pandemic were constrained by prior immunity, that R0 for influenza is higher than often assumed, and that control of any future pandemic could be difficult in the absence of significant prior immunity. In future, modelling assumptions, parameter estimates and conclusions should be tested against as many relevant data sets as possible. To this end, we encourage researchers to access FluWeb, an on-line influenza database of historical pandemics and outbreaks.