In the 1920s Moynihan described acute pancreatitis as "..the most terrible of all intra-abdominal calamities". He established a practice of immediate surgical intervention to remove the toxic products accumulating in the peritoneal cavity, and this treatment was endorsed by most centres, remaining the standard therapy for the next 20 years. In the 1940s, the mortality of patients treated surgically was shown to be far higher than those treated conservatively, and a more conservative line of management was recommended, comprising nasogastric stomach decompression, intravenous fluid therapy, opiate analgesia, and the administration of atropine. Despite half a century passing, a clinician would not be criticised for adopting such a regime today, which in part reflects the lack of understanding of this condition and the failure of seemingly appropriate therapy. Reduction in mortality is a consequence of advances in intensive care preventing the high early mortality of organ failure, but the area of specific therapy remains elusive. While this is so, the mortality rates for these patients will remain static, while the doctor continues to feel clinically impotent.