Dehydration in developed countries is an uncommon but important mechanism resulting in the death of infants and children. The clinicopathological features of a series of 37 fatal dehydration cases autopsied at the Adelaide Children's Hospital over a 33-year period (1961-1993) are presented. Causative factors for dehydration included gastroenteritis (21 cases), gastroenteritis with high environmental temperature (one case), high environmental temperatures (six cases), neglect/failure to thrive (four cases), mental retardation/chromosomal abnormality (three cases), congenital adrenal hyperplasia (one case), and unsuspected cystic fibrosis (one case). The mean age at death was 11.4 months (range 2 weeks to 6.25 years; median 6 months; 95% confidence interval 6 months to 1 year and 4 months; male-to-female ratio, 19:18). Sixteen of the 22 cases of fatal gastroenteritis (73%) occurred during the fall/winter months (March to August). There were a total of seven aboriginal or part aboriginal children in the group (19%). Children with mental retardation were at higher risk of dehydration, and previously unsuspected cases of child abuse/neglect also presented with lethal dehydration. Vitreous humor electrolyte levels and immunoassay for rotavirus were useful diagnostic adjuncts.