We retrospectively evaluated the prevalence of primary glomerular lesions in adults who had a renal biopsy for nephrotic proteinuria. From July 1975 to May 1994, 340 patients undergoing renal biopsies evaluated at Rush-Presbyterian-St Lukes Medical Center had the primary glomerular lesions of minimal-change disease, focal segmental glomerular sclerosis (FSGS), membranous glomerulonephritis (MGN), membranoproliferative glomerulonephropathy, immunoglobulin A nephropathy, and immunotactoid glomerulopathy. The patients had a mean age of 43 +/- 17 years, 57% were male, and 50% were white, 36% were black, 7% were of other race, and 7% were of unknown race. The distribution of lesions for black patients was minimal-change disease 14%, FSGS 57%, MGN 24%, membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis 2%, immunoglobulin A 2%, and immunotactoid glomerulopathy 1%; for white patients, the distribution of lesions was minimal-change disease 20%, FSGS 23%, MGN 36%, membranoproliferative glomerulonephropathy 6%, immunoglobulin A 8%, and immunotactoid glomerulopathy 6%. The prevalence of FSGS was significantly greater (P < 0.0001) and that for MGN, immunoglobulin A, and immunotactoid glomerulopathy was significantly less (P < 0.05) for black patients compared with white patients. In a logistic regression analysis, race remained the only significant predictor of FSGS (P = 0.0001), with black patients four times as likely to have FSGS as white patients. The distribution of lesions among white patients was similar based on gender, age, and biopsy period. For black patients the distribution was also similar based on gender and age, but over 20 years the incidence of FSGS increased from 39% (1975 to 1984) to 64% (1985 to 1994) (P < 0.01). Thus, significant racial differences in the distribution of primary glomerular lesions exists. This has important prognostic and therapeutic implications for nephrotic adults.