Acute pancreatitis has a mortality of about 10%: this figure has not changed over the last 20 years. A retrospective audit of fatal acute pancreatitis was performed in a teaching hospital with a catchment population of about 750,000 patients to examine patient characteristics. Using Hospital Activity Analysis code 577.0, all fatal cases of acute pancreatitis were studied in a six-year period 1987-93. Additionally, all post mortem diagnoses of acute pancreatitis were traced. The overall post mortem rate in Nottingham at the time of the study was about 35%. All available records, X-ray and biochemical data were studied and appropriate information recorded and analysed for 65 fatal cases. Only 15% were post mortem diagnoses, lower than in previous series; 72% had respiratory and 67% had renal complications. Only 34% had been admitted to the intensive care unit. A third of patients had had surgery; 67% of these was some form of external drainage. Of the 14 patients with proven gallstone pancreatitis only three had endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography; 42% of patients had idiopathic disease. Not all the patients diagnosed ante mortem had the full biochemical predicted severity criteria analysed: pO2 and calcium analysis was performed in about 80%. Pre-mortem diagnoses of pancreatitis was achieved more frequently than in other comparable series.