Experimental meningitis was induced in 16 pigmented guinea pigs by subarachnoid inoculation of mid log-phase 1 x 10(9) E. coli K-12 (n = 8) or 5 x 10(7) Streptococcus pneumoniae type 2 (n = 8). Animals were killed at various times between 3 and 12 h after inoculation and the ultrastructure of the organ of Corti (including the basilar membrane) was examined with high resolution scanning electron microscopy. Both E. coli and S. pneumoniae induced meningitis and invaded scala tympani. In both types of meningitis the apical surface of inner supporting cells developed craters. inner hair cell stereocilia were also disrupted. In pneumococcal meningitis both these lesions were more pronounced but in addition there were breaks in the junctions between inner hair cells and their adjacent supporting cells and there was ballooning and rupture of the apical surface of outer hair cells. Damage to the organ of Corti after bacterial invasion of the inner ear may be one of the mechanisms by which bacterial meningitis can cause deafness. The more severe cochlear lesions induced by S.pneumoniae may explain the higher incidence of deafness after pneumococcal meningitis.