Two rabbit polyclonal antibodies were raised against synthetic peptides corresponding to residue numbers 45-59 and 181-200 of rat ciliary neuronotrophic factor (CNTF). The resulting antibodies were purified by affinity chromatography and both purified antibodies reacted by enzyme-linked immunoassay (ELISA) and immunoblotting with rat sciatic nerve CNTF. The anti-CNTF peptide antibodies were used to immunostain sections of adult rat sciatic nerve, previously known as the richest tissue source of CNTF. By light microscopy both antibodies appeared to stain exclusively Schwann cells and axons and both did so with the same pattern of specific staining. Immunostaining was eliminated by absorption of the anti-peptide antibodies with either their corresponding peptide or with purified rat nerve CNTF or by using purified nonspecific IgG. Schwann cells were stained and in semi-thin sections this staining appeared to be in the Schwann cell cytoplasm. Axons could be stained in addition to Schwann cells providing higher concentrations of antibodies were used. Epineurial, endoneurial and endothelial cells appeared unstained. Since all Schwann cells and axons appear to contain CNTF and since CNTF is known to act in vitro to support sensory and sympathetic ganglionic and motor neurons, we suggest that Schwann cells may normally provide CNTF to those neurons contributing axons to the peripheral nerve.