We describe the astonishing changes and progress that have occurred in the field of population genetics over the past 50 years, slightly longer than the time since the first Population Genetics Group (PGG) meeting in January 1968. We review the major questions and controversies that have preoccupied population geneticists during this time (and were often hotly debated at PGG meetings). We show how theoretical and empirical work has combined to generate a highly productive interaction involving successive developments in the ability to characterise variability at the molecular level, to apply mathematical models to the interpretation of the data and to use the results to answer biologically important questions, even in nonmodel organisms. We also describe the changes from a field that was largely dominated by UK and North American biologists to a much more international one (with the PGG meetings having made important contributions to the increased number of population geneticists in several European countries). Although we concentrate on the earlier history of the field, because developments in recent years are more familiar to most contemporary researchers, we end with a brief outline of topics in which new understanding is still actively developing.Heredity advance online publication, 27 July 2016; doi:10.1038/hdy.2016.55.