The concept of "effective dose" was introduced in 1975 to provide a mechanism for assessing the radiation detriment from partial body irradiations in terms of data derived from whole body irradiations. The effective dose is the mean absorbed dose from a uniform whole-body irradiation that results in the same total radiation detriment as from the nonuniform, partial-body irradiation in question. The effective dose is calculated as the weighted average of the mean absorbed dose to the various body organs and tissues, where the weighting factor is the radiation detriment for a given organ (from a whole-body irradiation) as a fraction of the total radiation detriment. In this review, effective dose equivalent and effective dose, as established by the International Commission on Radiological Protection in 1977 and 1990, respectively, are defined and various methods of calculating these quantities are presented for radionuclides, radiography, fluoroscopy, computed tomography and mammography. In order to calculate either quantity, it is first necessary to estimate the radiation dose to individual organs. One common method of determining organ doses is through Monte Carlo simulations of photon interactions within a simplified mathematical model of the human body. Several groups have performed these calculations and published their results in the form of data tables of organ dose per unit activity or exposure. These data tables are specified according to particular examination parameters, such as radiopharmaceutical, x-ray projection, x-ray beam energy spectra or patient size. Sources of these organ dose conversion coefficients are presented and differences between them are examined. The estimates of effective dose equivalent or effective dose calculated using these data, although not intended to describe the dose to an individual, can be used as a relative measure of stochastic radiation detriment. The calculated values, in units of sievert (or rem), indicate the amount of whole-body irradiation that would yield the equivalent radiation detriment as the exam in question. In this manner, the detriment associated with partial or organ-specific irradiations, as are common in diagnostic radiology, can be assessed.