Pancreatic abscess is one of the infectious complications of acute pancreatitis. It is a collection principally containing pus, but it may also contain variable amounts of semisolid necrotic debris. Most of these abscesses evolve from the progressive liquefaction of necrotic pancreatic and peripancreatic tissues, but some arise from infection of peripancreatic fluid or collections elsewhere in the peritoneal cavity. Included also are abscesses found after surgical débridement and drainage of pancreatic necrosis. Although open surgical treatment of infected necrosis is the established treatment of choice, percutaneous drainage of abscesses is successful in some circumstances. We used percutaneous catheter drainage in 39 patients during 1987-1995. Only 9 of 29 (31%) attempts at primary therapy were successful; 2 patients died, and 18 required subsequent surgical drainage. On the other hand, 14 of 14 patients with recurrent or residual abscesses after surgical drainage were successfully drained percutaneously. Percutaneous catheter drainage of pancreatic abscesses may be useful for initial stabilization of septic patients, drainage of further abscesses after surgical intervention (especially when access for reoperation will be difficult), associated abscesses remote from the pancreas, and selected unilocular collections at a sufficient interval after necrotizing pancreatitis to have allowed essentially complete liquefaction.