Two hundred and sixty-three women with ultrasound-diagnosed polycystic ovary syndrome were studied of whom 91 (35%) were obese (BMI greater than 25 kg/m2). Obese women with PCOS had a greater prevalence of hirsutism (73% compared with 56%) and menstrual disorders than non-obese subjects. Total testosterone and androstenedione concentrations in serum were similar in the two subgroups but SHBG concentrations were significantly lower, and free testosterone levels higher, in obese compared with lean subjects. In addition, concentrations of androsterone glucuronide, a marker of peripheral 5 alpha-reductase activity, were higher in obese than in non-obese women with PCOS. There were no significant correlations of either SHBG or free testosterone with androsterone glucuronide suggesting that obesity has independent effects on transport and on metabolism of androgen. There were no significant differences between the subgroups in either baseline gonadotrophin concentrations or the pulsatile pattern of LH and FSH secretion studied over an 8-h period. There was, however, an inverse correlation of FSH with BMI, but only in the obese subgroup. In conclusion, the increased frequency of hirsutism in obese compared with lean women with PCOS is associated with increased bio-availability of androgens to peripheral tissues and enhanced activity of 5 alpha-reductase in obese subjects. The mechanism underlying the higher prevalence of anovulation in obese women remains unexplained.