The existence of high quality, population-based, medical data facilitates the practice of modern epidemiology with its concomitant benefits for clinical practice and public health policy. Two exceptional examples of such databases are provided by Malmo, Sweden, and Olmsted County, Minnesota. This paper outlines briefly the similarities between these two geographic entities, and focuses, in particular, on the central role of the autopsy in Olmsted County. Changing temporal and spatial patterns of autopsy are reviewed as well as two important related issues: the role of consent and the medico-legal autopsy. The paper concludes with a summary of some of the more noteworthy contributions of autopsy-based epidemiological research in Olmsted County, and offers several recommendations for the establishment of a select network of special population-based study areas. These epidemiological "laboratories", through the interchange of data and tissue specimens, could make significant contributions to the study of diseases both nationally and internationally. Their interactive efforts and high quality data bases would help to increase the efficiency of the expenditure of scarce societal resources in epidemiology and health care.