Examination of isolated bones from patients with unequivocal rheumatoid arthritis provides only a glimpse of the disease but has been the only "gold standard" for recognition of osseous lesions as compatible with the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Documentation of skeletal pathologic changes in confidently diagnosed individuals has been a major missing link in the transition from clinical to skeletal analysis. Availability of appropriate skeletal material from two patients with long-standing, well-documented rheumatoid arthritis provided the opportunity for acquiring such information. The osseous appearance, skeletal distribution, and distinguishing features of rheumatoid arthritis "in the buff" were delineated in two contemporary patients and in a skeletal population of 2,906 individuals. The preconceived notion of anticipated severity of disease has hereby been tested and found wanting. Severe lesions are not recognizable or distinguishable from artifact in relatively fragile rheumatoid arthritis-affected bones, whether freshly prepared or remotely sampled. Characterization of the nature and epidemiology of osseous alterations in two contemporary skeletal populations permitted the development of a standard for recognition of the disease in skeletal populations.