Thirty-two patients died of pancreatitis and its complications over a 10-year period. Infection (bacteremia, fungemia, or pancreatic abscess) was the major cause of death in 80%. In the remaining 20%, refractory hypotension or respiratory failure were the lethal mechanisms. In only 78% of patients was the correct diagnosis made before death. Ninety-four percent of those who died did so during their first clinical episode of pancreatitis. Prophylactic antibiotics did not prevent the development of pancreatic abscesses and organisms resistant to the antibiotics used often became the primary pathogens. Certain prognostic factors reliably separated those who died from those who lived. Peritoneal lavage and dialysis may be helpful in both the early diagnosis and therapy of severe acute pancreatitis.