Controversy persists concerning the role of early surgical intervention in severe infective endocarditis (IE). We therefore reviewed 163 episodes of well-documented IE in which 32 cardiac operations were performed during the active phase of IE. Congestive heart failure (CHF) was the principal indication for surgery in 88% (28/32); systemic emboli, 1/32; and persisting sepsis, 3/32. Staphylococcus and enterococcus were the most common infecting organisms in the operative group (44% and 16% respectively). Surgical mortality (11/32,37%) did not differ (p greater than 0.05) from medical mortality (26/131,20%). All 11 operative deaths occurred in patients moribund prior to surgery, including three with preoperative cardiac arrest. Surgical patients undergoing preoperative cardiac catheterization demonstrated marked CHF: a mean left ventricular end-diastolic pressure of 25.3 mm Hg. The mean cardiac index in 8/11 surgical deaths was lower (p less than 0.05) vs surgical survivors: 2.21/min/m2 vs. 3.21/min/m2. Postoperative complications were rare in the 21 surgical survivors. There were no episodes of continued infection, prosthetic dehiscence, or advanced heart block; only one paravalvular leak; and one systemic embolus. These findings emphasize the high medical and surgical mortality in patients with IE, suggest that delayed operative intervention may be a major causative factor resulting in a high surgical mortality, and justify an aggressive surgical approach in patients with valve dysfunction and heart failure. These data indicate that survivors of surgical intervention during active IE have eradication of infection and few postoperative complications.