To determine the timing of pubertal development and the frequency of gonadal dysfunction in children who survive acute lymphoblastic leukemia, we assessed pubertal status and the plasma levels of sex steroids, gonadotropin, and inhibin in 45 children (20 girls and 25 boys) who had received combination chemotherapy along with 24 Gy of irradiation to the cranium (modified LSA2L2 protocol). We also reexamined testicular biopsy specimens, obtained at the time of the cessation of chemotherapy, for the presence of germ cells. Germ-cell damage, indicated by marked elevations in the plasma level of follicle-stimulating hormone (P less than 0.001 for the comparison with normal children), was evident in both sexes and was confirmed in the boys by the absence of germ cells in the testicular biopsy specimens and by the small size of the testes for pubic-hair stage. Only 44 percent of the pubertal girls had measurable plasma inhibin levels, as compared with more than 93 percent of normal pubertal girls. Although plasma sex-steroid levels were normal, the secretion of luteinizing hormone in response to stimulation with gonadotropin-releasing hormone was elevated in the pubertal children (P less than 0.01 for the comparison with normal controls)--a finding that suggests compensation for decreased gonadal function. Despite clear evidence of gonadal damage, girls had early menarche at a mean age (+/- SD) of 11.95 +/- 0.91 years, as compared with the Australian standard of 12.98 +/- 1.11 years (P less than 0.01). Thus, in girls, puberty was early despite primary gonadal damage. Thirteen of 23 boys reached puberty at a mean age of 12.36 +/- 0.73 years. We conclude that treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia may lead to primary gonadal damage in both sexes, regardless of the age at treatment, but that the secondary characteristics of puberty develop at a normal age or, in girls, relatively early.