Oxygen free radical activity and inhibition were examined in experimental pancreatitis. Twenty-five rats were randomized to five groups: controls received intravenous saline, to simulate pancreatitis one group received intravenous caerulein (5 micrograms kg-1 h-1), and three groups received sodium taurocholate via the pancreatic duct (0.2 ml, 5 per cent), either alone, following allopurinol or immediately before superoxide dismutase. Chemiluminescence (a phenomenon based on the emission of light during chemical reactions and which is dependent on oxygen free radical activity) was used as an index of oxygen free radical activity and was measured in tissue samples at 5-min intervals following induction of pancreatitis. The control mean(s.e.m.) serum amylase level 1 h after induction of pancreatitis was 635(13) units. It was significantly elevated in caerulein-induced pancreatitis, 1833(118) units (P less than 0.05) and exceeded 3000 units in all taurocholate-infused animals. Mean(s.e.m.) chemiluminescence ranged from 44 (8) mV 100 mg-1 at time zero to 404(113) mV 100 mg-1 at 1 h in controls. In caerulein-induced pancreatitis mean(s.e.m.) chemiluminescence peaked at 20 min (1399(239) mV 100 mg-1, P less than 0.02) and in taurocholate-induced pancreatitis at 15 min (2316(95) mV 100 mg-1, P less than 0.004). Superoxide dismutase significantly reduced chemiluminescence and hyperamylasaemia in taurocholate groups. Increasing oxygen free radical activity paralleled evolving pancreatitis. Superoxide dismutase may have a therapeutic role in pancreatitis.