Local recurrence (LR) continues to be a major problem following surgical treatment for rectal cancer, and proposed ways of reducing this remain controversial. The aim of this study was to review results from published surgical series in which adjuvant therapies were not used. A Medline search identified series published between January 1982 and December 1992 with follow-up on at least 50 patients with rectal cancer treated surgically for cure, without adjuvant therapy. Fifty one papers reported follow-up on 10,465 patients with a median LR rate of 18.5%. LR was 8.5%, 16.3% and 28.6% in Dukes' A, B and C patients respectively, 16.2% following anterior resection and 19.3% following abdominoperineal resection. Nine papers (1,176 patients) reported LR rates of 10% or less. LR was 7.1% in 1,033 patients having total mesorectal excision and 12.4% in 476 patients having extended pelvic lymphadenectomy. Routine cytocidal stump washout in 1,364 patients was associated with 12.2% LR, however a higher proportion (41%) also underwent total mesorectal excision. In 52% of cases, LR was reported to have occurred with no evidence of disseminated disease. Surgical technique is an important determinant of LR risk. LR rates of 10% or less can be achieved with surgery alone in expert hands.