During a period of eight years (1980 to 1987), cytologic samples were obtained by brushing and reverse screw devices from 54 patients undergoing transhepatic cholangiography for evaluation of obstructive jaundice. Eight patients were excluded from this study, seven for inadequate follow-up and one because of unsatisfactory cytologic material. Of the remaining cases, 32 were cytologically diagnosed as adenocarcinomas; all but one patient proved to have malignant disease by histologic examination and/or through clinical follow-up. These included 21 pancreatic carcinomas, 6 bile duct carcinomas, 1 ampullary carcinoma, 1 gallbladder carcinoma and 2 metastatic carcinomas. In one case, the diagnosis of malignancy was found to be in error upon review of the cytologic smears. Of 14 patients with negative cytologic diagnoses, 7 were found to have malignant neoplasms and 7 had benign diseases. These findings indicate that, while a positive cytologic diagnosis is a reliable indicator of a malignant biliary obstruction, a negative result does not exclude malignancy.