National efforts directed toward improving our understanding of the epidemiology of periodontal disease began nearly a half century ago following the development of Russell’s periodontal index (PI). United States Public Health Service agencies began national surveillance activities for periodontal disease with the first National Health Examination Survey in 1960 to 1962, and this continued periodically through 2004 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Periodontal disease status was assessed by using the PI in the earlier national health surveys, but beginning in the 1980s, direct measures for clinical attachment loss were made in national health surveys and continued through 2004 in NHANES. This article provides a general history of the development and implementation of national surveillance efforts for periodontal disease from the mid-1950s to 2005. It also provides brief background information on the factors that have influenced these national surveillance efforts.