Hormonal breast cancer therapies have traditionally been considered cytostatic, but recent pre-clinical data suggest that anti-oestrogens can induce apoptosis. The aim of this study was to assess whether tamoxifen (TAM) and ICI 182780 (ICI) could induce apoptosis in human breast cancer, and whether this was related to oestrogen receptor status. We measured apoptosis in primary breast cancer patients before and after pre-surgical treatment with 20 mg/day TAM (study 1) or 6 or 18 mg/day ICI (study 2). In each study there was a randomised non-treatment (NT) control group. TAM significantly increased apoptotic index (AI) in ER+ but not in ER- tumours. There was a significant increase in AI following treatment with ICI. Insufficient pairs of samples were available to determine whether this change was confined to ER+ tumours, but in a cross-sectional analysis AI was significantly higher in excision biopsies for ICI-treated than NT patients for ER+ but not ER- tumours. Our results provide clinical evidence that apoptosis may be induced in ER+ primary breast cancer by both non-steroidal and steroidal anti-oestrogens.