Thirty-nine patients with spinal epidural abscess were evaluated at the Massachusetts General Hospital between 1947 and 1974. Twenty had acute symptoms, and purulent epidural collections were present; 19 had prolonged courses, and epidural granulation tissue was observed at operation. Staphylococcus aureus was the most common etiologic agent (57 per cent), followed by streptococci (18 per cent) and gram-negative bacilli (13 per cent). The source of infection was osteomyelitis in 38 per cent of cases and bacteremia in 26 per cent. In 16 per cent epidural abscess was due to postoperative infection. The progression from spinal ache to root pain to weakness followed by paralysis continues to be characteristic of spinal epidural abscess. Although the disease is uncommon, the complications are so serious that prompt diagnosis and treatment are of paramount importance. The combination of back pain with fewer and local tenderness is an indication for cerebrospinal-fluid examination and, depending on the results, immediate performance of myelography.