The indications for surgery in acute pancreatitis have changed significantly in the past two decades. Medical charts of patients with acute pancreatitis treated at our institution were analyzed to assess the effects of changes in surgical treatment on patient outcomes. A total of 136 patients with radiologically defined severe pancreatitis were primarily treated or referred to our institution between 1980 and 1997. Severity of the disease (Ranson score), indications for surgical intervention, timing of surgery, and mortality rates were compared during three study periods: 1980 to 1985 (period I), 1986 to 1990 (period II), and 1991 to 1997 (period III). In period I patients underwent exploratory laparotomy if their clinical status did not improve markedly within 72 hours of admission to the hospital, whereas during period II surgery was reserved for patients who had secondary organ failure together with pancreatic necrosis seen on CT scan. During period III the aim was to operate as late as possible in the presence of pancreatic necrosis or when infected necrosis was suspected. The policy of limiting the indications for surgery resulted in a decrease in surgically treated patients from 68% to 33% (P < 0.001). Likewise, surgical intervention was performed later. In period I, 73% of operations were performed within 72 hours of admission, compared to 32% in period III (P = 0.008). The mortality rate for patients who underwent early surgery (within 72 hours) was higher than for those who underwent late surgical exploration of the abdomen (P = 0.02). Overall, the mortality rate for patients with severe pancreatitis was reduced from 39% to 12% (P = 0.003). Mortality among patients treated nonoperatively did not change significantly. The present study supports the policy of delayed surgery in severe acute pancreatitis. Early surgical intervention often results in unnecessary procedures with an increase in the number of deaths. Whenever possible, prolonged observation allows selection of patients who are likely to benefit from delayed surgery or nonoperative treatment.