Background: In 1979, the authors began a prospective study of the natural history of retinopathy in youth-onset insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM). Their major goal was to determine if there was an association between glycemic control and the development and progression of retinopathy. Methods: The study consisted of 420 individuals with IDDM (onset younger than 20 years of age) and no retinopathy at baseline. Study subjects were enrolled between 1979 and 1988. Stereo color fundus photographs were obtained annually. Two eye endpoints were recorded: duration when retinopathy was first detected, and when proliferative retinopathy was detected. Glycemic control was assessed by quarterly determinations of glycohemoglobin (GHb). Life-table analyses were performed relating duration of diabetes, sex, GHb, and age of diabetes onset to development of retinopathy. Results: Retinopathy did not develop before 2 years' duration or before puberty. The prevalence of retinopathy was 50% by 9 years' duration and 100% by 20 years' duration. Retinopathy developed in females approximately 2 years sooner than in males, but plotting duration as postpubertal years resulted in nearly identical rates. Retinopathy developed significantly earlier in subjects with prepubertal onset of diabetes than in subjects with postpubertal onset if duration was plotted as postpubertal years. When separated into three groups based on GHb levels (<7.5%, 7.5%-9%, >9%), retinopathy developed approximately 2 years later in subjects in the less than 7.5% GHb group than those in the higher GHb groups. Proliferative retinopathy developed in 11 subjects. Their mean GHb level was higher than the mean GHb for those without proliferative retinopathy (10.9 versus 8.6%; P < 0.01). The higher the level of GHb, the sooner proliferative changes were detected. Conclusion: Long-term glycemic control is significantly related to both development and progression of retinopathy. Prepubertal duration of diabetes is a significant risk factor for the development of retinopathy.