We conducted a retrospective parallel cohort study comparing surgical and medical treatment for epilepsy. The surgical group contained all 201 patients treated with resective surgery for epilepsy in Norway since the first operation in 1949 until January 1988. The 185 patients in the control group, medically treated only, were closely matched for year of treatment, age at treatment, sex, seizure type, and neurologic deficit before treatment. Between 75 and 95% of the survivors (median 17 years after treatment) completed two questionnaires on their social situation. Although surgical treatment improved the seizure situation (about one-fourth had some neurologic deficit), a considerably smaller long-range influence on different social aspects was observed. There were no significant differences between the two groups in educational status, social pensions, social status, marital status, fertility, dependency in residential situation, the need for aid in daily activities of living (ADL), or the need for being looked after, when we controlled for pretreatment status. In all, 25.3% of the surgically treated patients and 8.5% of the controls were not receiving anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) at the time of investigation (Mann-Whitney U test, two-tailed p = 0.0011). A considerably higher proportion of the surgically treated (53.2%) than control patients (24.2%) claimed that the treatment had improved their "working ability" (Mann-Whitney U test, two-tailed p less than 0.0001), but this resulted in significant improvements in the actual working situation only for those in regular education or work before treatment (chi 2 = 6.514, p = 0.038).