In the past 50 years, conceptual changes in the field of periodontal diagnostics have paralleled those associated with a better scientific understanding of the full spectrum of processes that affect periodontal health and disease. Fifty years ago, concepts regarding the diagnosis of periodontal diseases followed the classical pathology paradigm. It was believed that the two basic forms of destructive periodontal disease were chronic inflammatory periodontitis and ‘periodontosis’– a degenerative condition. In the subsequent 25 years it was shown that periodontosis was an infection. By 1987, major new concepts regarding the diagnosis and pathogenesis of periodontitis included: (i) all cases of untreated gingivitis do not inevitably progress to periodontitis; (ii) progression of untreated periodontitis is often episodic; (iii) some sites with untreated periodontitis do not progress; (iv) a rather small population of specific bacteria (‘periodontal pathogens’) appear to be the main etiologic agents of chronic inflammatory periodontitis; and (v) tissue damage in periodontitis is primarily caused by inflammatory and immunologic host responses to infecting agents. The concepts that were in place by 1987 are still largely intact in 2012. However, in the decades to come, it is likely that new information on the human microbiome will change our current concepts concerning the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of periodontal diseases.