Dupuytren's contracture is a deforming, fibrotic condition of the palmar fascia which has confounded clinicians and scientists since the early descriptions by Guillaume Dupuytren in 1831. It predominantly affects elderly, male caucasians, has a hereditary predisposition and has strong associations with diabetes, alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking and HIV infection. The major morphological features are an increase in fibroblasts, particularly around narrowed fibroblasts; a finding consistent with localised ischaemia. During ischaemia, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is converted to hypoxanthine and xanthine, and endothelial xanthine dehydrogenase to xanthine oxidase (alcohol also mediates this change, a finding of particular relevance given the association of Dupuytren's contracture with alcohol intake). Xanthine oxidase catalyses the oxidation of hypoxanthine to xanthine and uric acid with the release of superoxide free radicals (O2-), hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and hydroxyl radicals (OH.). These free radicals are highly reactive, with half-lives in the order of milliseconds and are toxic in high concentrations. A potential for free radical generation in Dupuytren's contracture was elicited by finding a sixfold increase in hypoxanthine concentrations in Dupuytren's contracture compared with control palmar fascia. In vitro studies affirmed the toxic effects of oxygen free radicals to Dupuytren's contracture fibroblasts, but also showed that, at lower concentrations (concentrations similar to those likely to occur in Dupuytren's contracture), free radicals had a stimulatory effect on fibroblast proliferation. Cultured fibroblasts were found to release their own O2-. These endogenously released free radicals were also found to be important in fibroblast proliferation. The collagen changes of Dupuytren's contracture were examined. The results established that fibroblast origin was unimportant, but that inhibition of type I collagen production at high fibroblast density accounted for the increase in type III/I collagen ratios observed by previous investigators. These biochemical and morphological observations throw new light on Dupuytren's contracture. They suggest that age, genetic and environmental factors may contribute to micro vessel narrowing with consequent localised ischaemia and free radical generation. Endothelial xanthine oxidase derived free radicals may both damage the surrounding stroma and stimulate fibroblasts to proliferate. Proliferating fibroblasts lay down and contract collagen in lines of stress.Progressive fibroblast proliferation and deposition of collagen is likely to encourage further microvessel narrowing with a positive feedback effect consistent with the progressive nature of the condition.