The acute effects of proton whole-body irradiation on the distribution and function of leukocyte populations in the spleen and blood were examined and compared to the effects of photons derived from a (60)Co gamma-ray source. Adult female C57BL/6 mice were exposed to a single dose (3 Gy at 0.4 Gy/min) of protons at spread-out Bragg peak (SOBP), protons at the distal entry (E) region, or gamma rays and killed humanely at six different times thereafter. Specific differences were noted in the results, thereby suggesting that the kinetics of the response may be variable. However, the lack of significant differences in most assays at most times suggests that the RBE for both entry and peak regions of the Bragg curve was essentially 1.0 under the conditions of this study. The greatest immunodepression was observed at 4 days postexposure. Flow cytometry and mitogenic stimulation analyses of the spleen and peripheral blood demonstrated that lymphocyte populations differ in radiosensitivity, with B (CD19(+)) cells being most sensitive, T (CD3(+)) cells being moderately sensitive, and natural killer (NK1.1(+)) cells being most resistant. B lymphocytes showed the most rapid recovery. Comparison of the T-lymphocyte subsets showed that CD4(+) T helper/inducer cells were more radiosensitive than the CD8(+) T cytotoxic/suppressor cells. These findings should have an impact on future studies designed to maximize protection of normal tissue during and after proton-radiation exposure.