In situ synthesis of estrogens by breast cancer tissue provides a potential explanation for the high concentrations of estradiol in mammary neoplasms in postmenopausal women. A major metabolic pathway for estrogen biosynthesis is the conversion of androstenedione to estrone via the enzyme aromatase. Biochemical studies have demonstrated aromatase in tumor tissue, but at relatively low and not clearly biologically significant levels. The present study tested the hypothesis that tumor levels of aromatase, albeit low, could be biologically important if present in high concentrations in focal clusters of specific cell types. A pilot study used an immunohistochemical method in frozen sections of fresh breast tumors as an optimal means to detect aromatase. Twelve of 18 tumors contained aromatase-positive cells, some with highly intense staining. A follow-up study then attempted to precisely define the types of cells containing aromatase and correlate the immunohistochemical findings with biochemical aromatase activity. A modified H-score (histological scoring system) was used to semiquantitate the amount of aromatase staining in tumor epithelial, stromal spindle, stromal inflammatory, and normal breast epithelial cells. We found that immunohistochemical staining for aromatase predominated in stromal spindle cells with a median H-score of 13, whereas tumor epithelial, stromal inflammatory, and normal breast elements contained lesser amounts (median H-scores of 4.8, 0.03, and 0.5, respectively). The H-score for stromal spindle cells, but not those for other cell types, correlated highly with the biochemical aromatase assay (P < 0.01). Using a cut-off parameter estimated by a sensitivity/specificity (receiver operating curve) analysis, 62% of tumors were classified as aromatase positive based on stromal spindle cell staining. A similar number were also positive by biochemical assay, with concordance between the two methods of 77%. These observations provide substantial evidence for the presence of aromatase in human breast tumors, particularly in stromal spindle cells, and support the biological importance of aromatase for in situ production of estradiol.