Surgical operations have been shown to cause a variety of immunological disturbances in man both in vivo and in vitro. With few exceptions the overall picture is one of a generalized state of immunodepression in the postoperative period. The implications of these observations are that host defences may be compromised by surgical procedures, thus providing a 'fertile soil' for bacterial invasion and tumour cell metastasis at the very time when risks from invading pathogens and viable tumour cells are maximal. We have studied the effects of surgical operations on the immune system in 35 patients with benign disease. Surgical procedures were classified as either minor (n = 15) or major (n = 20). A panel of monoclonal antibodies was used to identify peripheral blood lymphocyte subpopulations and analysis was performed using flow cytometry. Simultaneous estimations of plasma alpha-1 proteinase inhibitor (alpha-1-PI), alpha-2-macroglobulin (alpha-2-M), alpha-2-pregnancy-associated glycoprotein (alpha-2-PAG) and plasma suppressive activity (PSA) on stimulated allogeneic lymphocytes were performed before operation and on postoperative days 1, 3, 7, 17 and 21. Circulating numbers of all lymphocyte subpopulations fell significantly following surgery, except for B lymphocytes which did not change. The magnitude, and duration of the reduction in cell numbers and the subpopulation affected was significantly related to the degree of surgical trauma, and returned to pre-operative values by postoperative day 7. Changes in alpha-1-PI, alpha-2-M, alpha-2-PAG and PSA were also significantly related to the degree of surgical trauma, and these plasma changes persisted longer than the cellular disturbances. Surgical operations induce a reversible depression of cellular immunity which precedes plasma suppressive activity in its return to pre-operative levels. Immunostimulating agents such as interferon and the interleukins deserve evaluation as prophylactic agents pre-operatively.