In order to define the characteristics of the antibacterial activity of beta-lactam antibiotics in the treatment of bacterial meningitis, the relationship between cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) drug concentrations and the rate of bacterial killing was investigated for penicillin G and four new cephalosporins in an animal model of meningitis due to Streptococcus pneumoniae. All five drugs showed a significant correlation between increasing drug concentrations in CSF and increasing bactericidal rates. Minimal activity was observed in CSF at drug concentrations of approximately the broth minimal bactericidal concentration (MBC). Maximal activity occurred with CSF concentrations 10-30 times higher. In vitro tests did not reproduce the unique correlation of increasing drug concentrations and killing activity found in vivo. When evaluating new beta-lactam antibiotics for the treatment of bacterial meningitis, it is reasonable to establish a minimum standard of CSF drug concentrations of greater than or equal to 30 times the MBC against the infecting organism.