One hundred two patients with empyema thoracis were managed at the Royal Melbourne Hospital between 1976 and 1989. Fifty-five cases of empyema thoracis were postpneumonic, 8 followed esophageal rupture, and 5 were associated with thoracic trauma. Some form of systemic illness was a major contributing factor in the presentation of 29 patients. A single causal organism was found in 53 patients (the most common being Staphylococcus aureus), multiple organisms in 36, and no growth in 13. During the years 1983 to 1989 there was an increased incidence of empyemas caused by multiple or antibiotic-resistant organisms. Operative drainage was required in 90 patients and 12 were managed by thoracentesis or intercostal tube drainage alone. The in-hospital mortality rate for patients managed nonoperatively was 58% (7 of 12 patients); it was 16% (14 of 90 patients) for those receiving operative drainage. There were seven late deaths, four empyema related and three nonrelated. Early adequate operative drainage is recommended for patients with empyema thoracis.