This paper reviews current understanding of the epidemiology, transmission dynamics and control of the aetiological agent of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). We present analyses of data on key parameters and distributions and discuss the processes of data capture, analysis and public health policy formulation during the SARS epidemic are discussed. The low transmissibility of the virus, combined with the onset of peak infectiousness following the onset of clinical symptoms of disease, transpired to make simple public health measures, such as isolating patients and quarantining their contacts, very effective in the control of the SARS epidemic. We conclude that we were lucky this time round, but may not be so with the next epidemic outbreak of a novel aetiological agent. We present analyses that help to further understanding of what intervention measures are likely to work best with infectious agents of defined biological and epidemiological properties. These lessons learnt from the SARS experience are presented in an epidemiological and public health context.