Biopsies from 34 patients with cancer of the head, neck or esophagus, 2 laryngeal papillomas, and 2 normal tonsils were analysed for human papillomavirus (HPV), Epstein Barr virus (EBV) genomes and mutated or elevated levels of p53. In 4 biopsies p53 was also analysed by DNA sequencing. HPV type 31 was found in one laryngeal cancer with normal p53 and HPV type 16 in two tonsil cancers with aberrant p53 expression. EBV was detected by PCR in 11 biopsies, but in situ hybridisation and immunohistochemistry, did not confirm this finding. Aberrant p53 expression was observed in approximately half of the tumours. These results support the involvement of both aberrant p53 expression and HPV in the aetiology of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck.