The timing, magnitude, and spatial distribution of neuron elimination was studied in the dorsal lateral geniculate nucleus of 57 rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) ranging in age from the 48th day of gestation to maturity. Normal and degenerating cells were counted in Nissl-stained sections by using video-enhanced differential interference contrast optics and video-overlay microscopy. Before embryonic day 60 (E60), the geniculate nucleus contains 2,200,000 +/- 100,000 neurons. Roughly 800,000 of these neurons are eliminated over a 40- to 50-day period spanning the middle third of gestation. Neurons are lost at an average rate of 300 an hour between E48 and E60, and at an average rate of 800 an hour between E60 and E100. Very few neurons are lost after E100, and as early as E103 the population has fallen to the adult average of 1,400,000 +/- 90,000. Degenerating neurons are far more common in the magnocellular part of the nucleus than in the parvicellular part. In 20 of 29 cases, the number of neurons is greater on the right than on the left side. The right-left asymmetry averages about 8.5% and the difference is statistically significant (phi 2 = 38, p less than .001). The period of cell death occurs before the emergence of cell layers in the geniculate nucleus, before the establishment of geniculocortical connections, and before the formation of ocular dominance columns (Rakic, '76). Most important, the depletion of neurons in the geniculate nucleus begins long before the depletion of retinal axons. The number of geniculate neurons is probably a key factor controlling the number of the retinal cells that survive to maturity.