Considerable data suggest that very high doses of acute total body radiation destroy most hematopoietic stem cells and that recovery is possible only after a bone marrow transplant. We review data from a radiation accident victim exposed to about 10-Gy or more acute total body radiation. Total dose and uniformity of distribution were confirmed by physical measurements (paramagnetic resonance), computer simulation, and biologic dosimetry (granulocyte kinetics and cytogenetic abnormalities). Treatment consisted of supportive measures, transfusions, and hematopoietic growth factors (granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor and interleukin-3). Hematopoietic recovery occurred slowly. Granulocytes were detectable throughout the postexposure period, exceeding 0.5 x 10(9)/L by day 37. There was slower and incomplete recovery of red blood cells and platelets. Increases in blood cell production were paralleled by morphologic changes in bone marrow biopsies. Gastrointestinal toxicity was moderate. Death from a probable radiation pneumonitis infection occurred on day 130. These data indicate the possibility of hematopoietic recovery after approximately 10 Gy or more acute total body radiation without a transplant. They also suggest that lung rather than gastrointestinal toxicity may be dose-limiting under these circumstances.