We reviewed magnetic resonance (MR) staging examinations of 98 patients with malignant lymphoma who failed other therapy and were under evaluation for bone marrow transplantation. MR scan results were compared with blind posterior iliac crest aspirations and biopsies. Images of vertebral, pelvic, and femoral marrow were obtained using a standard T1-weighted, short repetition time (TR), short time to echo (TE) (TR700/TE22), spin-echo (T1-SE) method in 92 patients and short TI inversion recovery (STIR) technique (TR1,500/TE36/TI100) in all. On standard T1-SE sequence, normal marrow is bright due to the predominance of marrow fat, and tumor is dark. With STIR images, water containing tumor has a very high signal intensity in a dark (fat suppressed) background. Thirteen patients had positive MR scans and marrow biopsies, whereas 49 had negative MR scans and biopsies. Of 36 discordant MR/histology results, 10 had positive biopsies and negative MR exams; eight of these had microscopic infiltration (less than or equal to 5%) with tumor. MR detected marrow tumor either in the crests or elsewhere in 25 of 75 (33%) patients with negative study biopsies. We could confirm marrow involvement in 15 of these 25 (60%) by clinical methods. Therefore, up to one third of the patients evaluated with routine biopsies may have occult marrow tumor detectable by MR exam. In patients with negative marrow biopsies, especially those with Hodgkin's disease or intermediate to high-grade non-Hodgkin's lymphomas, MR scans found focal lesions distant from the crests. Biopsy better detected lower grade microscopic involvement. We conclude that optimal marrow staging of lymphoma patients incorporates both biopsy and MR imaging.