The Glasgow Outcome Scale (GOS) was first published in 1975 by Bryan Jennett and Michael Bond. With over 4,000 citations to the original paper, it is the most highly cited outcome measure in studies of brain injury and the second most-cited paper in clinical neurosurgery. The original GOS and the subsequently developed extended GOS (GOSE) are recommended by several national bodies as the outcome measure for major trauma and for head injury. The enduring appeal of the GOS is linked to its simplicity, short administration time, reliability and validity, stability, flexibility of administration (face-to-face, over the telephone and by post), cost-free availability and ease of access. These benefits apply to other derivatives of the scale, including the Glasgow Outcome at Discharge Scale (GODS) and the GOS paediatric revision. The GOS was devised to provide an overview of outcome and to focus on social recovery. Since the initial development of the GOS, there has been an increasing focus on the multidimensional nature of outcome after head injury. This Review charts the development of the GOS, its refinement and usage over the past 40 years, and considers its current and future roles in developing an understanding of brain injury.