This paper shows the scale of global health research and the context in which we frame the subsequent papers in the Series. In this Series paper, we provide a historical perspective on clinical trial research by revisiting the 1948 streptomycin trial for pulmonary tuberculosis, which was the first documented randomised clinical trial in the English language, and we discuss its close connection with global health. We describe the current state of clinical trial research globally by providing an overview of clinical trials that have been registered in the WHO International Clinical Trial Registry since 2010. We discuss challenges with current trial planning and designs that are often used in clinical trial research undertaken in low-income and middle-income countries, as an overview of the global health trials landscape. Finally, we discuss the importance of collaborative work in global health research towards generating sustainable and culturally appropriate research environments.