A sensitive and specific capillary gas chromatographic (GC) assay was developed for the quantitation of the quaternary ammonium steroidal neuromuscular blocking drugs pancuronium (PANC), vecuronium (VEC) and pipecuronium (PIP), as well as the metabolites 3-desacetylpancuronium (3-desPANC) and 3-desacetylvecuronium (3-des VEC) in plasma, bile and urine; the putative metabolite 3-desacetylpipecuronium (3-des PIP) was extracted and quantitated only in urine. The procedure employed a single dichloromethane extraction of the iodide ion-pairs of the monoquaternary or bisquaternary ammonium compounds (including internal and external standards) from acidified, ether-washed biological fluid followed by the formation of stable O-tert.-butyldimethylsilyl derivatives at the 3-hydroxy steroidal position of the metabolites. An automated capillary GC system fitted with a nitrogen-sensitive detector and an integrator was then used to analyze and quantitate both parent compounds and their derivatized metabolites. Optimal extraction, derivatization and GC conditions, as well as short-term stability and recoveries of these drugs and metabolites in plasma, are reported. Electron ionization mass spectrometry combined with GC was used to confirm the identities of compounds eluted from the column. The assay demonstrated a 10(3)-fold linear range up to 5000 ng/ml for PANC, VEC, 3-des VEC and PIP, and lower limits of detection with adequate precision of 2 ng/ml for PANC, VEC and PIP, and 4 ng/ml for 3-des VEC; 3-des PANC was linear from 8 to 500 ng/ml while 3-des PIP was linear from 25 to 1000 ng/ml. The precision (coefficient of variation) of the calibration curves for underivatized drugs and their derivatized metabolites over the linear ranges was 2-20% and the reproducibility of the assay over a range of clinical concentrations of these drugs found in human plasma was 5-16% for PANC, 2-4% for VEC and 6-11% for PIP. No interferences were detected in the assay of plasma samples from 106 surgical patients.