Fifty-one corneal buttons obtained by penetrating keratoplasty from patients with a preoperative clinical diagnosis of nonulcerative herpetic keratitis and/or disciform stromal scarring (44) as well as ulcerative necrotizing stromal keratitis (7) were processed for herpes simplex virus (HSV) antigens using an immunoperoxidase technique and for HSV DNA by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). HSV antigens were detected significantly more often (p<0.025) in specimens with avascular nonulcerative keratitis than in those with vascularization. In contrast to HSV antigens, HSV DNA was identified at equal proportions in avascular and vascularized lesions. Both HSV antigens and HSV DNA were detected in all specimens from patients with ulcerative necrotizing stromal keratitis. The implications of these findings with regard to possible mechanisms underlying herpetic keratitis in man are discussed. © 1991 Informa UK Ltd All rights reserved: reproduction in whole or part not permitted.