Therapeutic oncolytic viruses (virotherapeutics) constitute a novel class of targeted anticancer agents that have unique mechanisms of action compared with other cancer therapeutics. The development of virotherapeutics has evolved from the use of in vitro-passaged strains (first generation), to genetically engineered selectivity-enhanced viruses (second generation) and finally to genetically engineered transgene-expressing 'armed' oncolytic viruses (third generation). Descriptions of cancer remissions following virus infections date back to a century ago. Initial patient treatment publications, written up to 50 years ago, consisted of case reports or case series of treatment with first-generation, non-engineered viruses. Over the past decade, hundreds of patients with cancer have been treated on prospectively designed clinical trials (including phase III), evaluating over 10 different agents, inlcluding engineered second-generation and third-generation viruses. This Review summarizes and interprets the data from clinical reports over the last century, including safety, efficacy and biological end points (viral and immunologic). Systemic safety and efficiacy has been clearly demonstrated with some virotherapeutics. The implications of these data for future virotherapy development are discussed.