Although gemistocytic astrocytomas are considered slow-growing astrocytomas, they often behave aggressively. To clarify the biological and clinical behavior of these rare tumors, the authors retrospectively identified 59 patients with gemistocytic astrocytoma whose tumors were diagnosed and treated between June, 1976, and July, 1989. Three patients who were lost to follow-up review were excluded, as were two whose original slides could not be obtained and three whose tumors were diagnosed at recurrence or at autopsy. The pathological material of the remaining 51 patients was reviewed using two sets of histological criteria. Thirteen patients (Group A) had "pure" gemistocytic astrocytoma, defined as a glial tumor with more than 60% gemistocytes/high-power field and a background of fibrillary astrocytes. Fifteen patients (Group B) had "mixed" gemistocytic astrocytoma, defined as a glial tumor with 20% to 60% gemistocytes/high-power field and a background of anaplastic astrocytes. Twenty-three tumors did not meet these criteria and were excluded from analysis. The median age of the patients was 48.5 years in Group A and 38.3 years in Group B (p less than 0.05). In both groups, the median Karnofsky Performance Scale score was greater than 90%. All patients underwent surgical procedures (four total and 19 partial resections, and five biopsies) and postoperative radiation therapy. The majority also had interstitial brachytherapy, chemotherapy, or both. Ten patients had one reoperation for tumor recurrence and one had two reoperations; other treatments for recurrence included brachytherapy, chemotherapy, and repeat irradiation. All four patients who originally underwent gross total resection are still alive; all five who had a biopsy have died. There was no significant difference in median survival times between groups: 136.5 weeks in Group A (range 10 to 310+ weeks) and 135.6 weeks in Group B (range 31 to 460+ weeks). Analysis of all 28 patients showed a better prognosis for patients less than 50 years of age (185 vs. 36 weeks survival time; p less than 0.001), patients with preoperative symptoms lasting for more than 6 months (228.1 vs. 110.2 weeks survival time; p less than 0.05), and patients with seizures as the first symptom (185.7 vs. 80 weeks survival time; p less than 0.01). Survival time did not correlate with the presence of perivascular lymphocytic infiltration. The authors conclude that the presence of at least 20% gemistocytes in a glial neoplasm is a poor prognostic sign, irrespective of the pathological background. It is proposed that gemistocytic astrocytomas be classified with anaplastic astrocytomas and treated accordingly.