1. Recent studies have suggested that interleukin-6 is a major mediator of the acute-phase protein response in man. The aim of the present study was to investigate the relationships between the response of serum interleukin-6 to surgery, the type of surgical procedure performed and the response of serum C-reactive protein. 2. Timed venous blood samples were taken from 26 patients in five broad surgical categories (minor surgery, cholecystectomy, hip replacement, colorectal surgery and major vascular surgery). C-reactive protein and interleukin-6 were measured in each sample. 3. Serum interleukin-6 rose within 2-4 h of incision in all patients and the magnitude of the response differed among the various surgical groups. The response of interleukin-6 correlated (r = 0.80, P less than 0.001) with the duration of surgery. In contrast, serum C-reactive protein was not detectable after minor surgery (less than 10 mg/l) and the response of C-reactive protein did not differ among the more major surgical groups. The response of interleukin-6 showed a weak, but significant, correlation with the response of C-reactive protein (r = 0.67, P less than 0.001). 4. We conclude that serum interleukin-6 is a sensitive, early marker of tissue damage. In general, the greater the surgical trauma, the greater the response of serum interleukin-6 and the greater the peak serum concentration of interleukin-6. Our results are consistent with a role for interleukin-6 in the induction of C-reactive protein synthesis.