Seventy samples of human cadaver atherosclerotic aorta were irradiated in vitro using a 308 nm xenon chloride excimer laser. Energy per pulse, pulse duration and frequency were varied. For comparison, 60 segments were also irradiated with an argon ion and an Nd:YAG (neodymium:yttrium aluminum garnet) laser operated in the continuous mode. Tissue was fixed in formalin, sectioned and examined microscopically. The Nd:YAG and argon ion-irradiated tissue exhibited a central crater with irregular edges and concentric zones of thermal and blast injury. In contrast, the excimer laser-irradiated tissue had narrow deep incisions with minimal or no thermal injury. These preliminary experiments indicate that the excimer laser vaporizes tissue in a manner different from that of the continuous wave Nd:YAG or argon ion laser. The sharp incision margins and minimal damage to adjacent normal tissue suggest that the excimer laser is more desirable for general surgical and intravascular uses than are the conventionally used medical lasers.