We describe the incidence and natural history of four clinically identifiable subgroups of cerebral infarction in a community-based study of 675 patients with first-ever stroke. Of 543 patients with a cerebral infarct, 92 (17%) had large anterior circulation infarcts with both cortical and subcortical involvement (total anterior circulation infarcts, TACI); 185 (34%) had more restricted and predominantly cortical infarcts (partial anterior circulation infarcts, PACI); 129 (24%) had infarcts clearly associated with the vertebrobasilar arterial territory (posterior circulation infarcts, POCI); and 137 (25%) had infarcts confined to the territory of the deep perforating arteries (lacunar infarcts, LACI). There were striking differences in natural history between the groups. The TACI group had a negligible chance of good functional outcome and mortality was high. More than twice as many deaths were due to the complications of immobility than to direct neurological sequelae of the infarct. Patients in the PACI group were much more likely to have an early recurrent stroke than were patients in other groups. Those in the POCI group were at greater risk of a recurrent stroke later in the first year after the index event but had the best chance of a good functional outcome. Despite the small anatomical size of the infarcts in the LACI group, many patients remained substantially handicapped. The findings have important implications for the planning of stroke treatment trials and suggest that various therapies could be directed specifically at the subgroups.