The generous supply of surgeons in the United States stimulated a study of their operative work based on all operations performed by all physicians in hospitals of four geographic areas. Each operation was assigned a California Relative Value to permit work-load comparisons between specialties and practices. General practitioners constituted more than one quarter of physicians who performed operations but accounted for less than one tenth of total work. Surgical specialists, about half the physicians in the study, performed about 80 per cent of total operative work. Work loads of surgical specialists varied by certification, specialty, age and practice organization status. We conclude that far too many physicians perform surgical operations and that work loads of surgical specialists are modest. Calculations involving reallocation of operative work loads suggest that the total volume of operations in this study could have been handled by a substantially smaller cadre of busier surgical specialists.