Pre-eclampsia has been described as a 'disease of first pregnancies' and many believe that its occurrence in a later pregnancy signals a fundamentally different entity. We sought to compare risk factors in first and subsequent pregnancies. We studied 1319 cases of pre-eclampsia recorded in a historical cohort of 82 436 deliveries in Jerusalem in 1964-76. Logistic regression was used to control for covariates. The adjusted odds ratio (OR) for pre-eclampsia in first births was 2.58 (95% confidence interval[CI] 2.23, 2.97), compared with all later birth order groups, between which there were no detectable differences in risk. Other risk factors included increasing maternal age, diabetes (OR 5.64, 95% CI 4.33, 7.35), multiple gestations (OR 3.38, 95% CI 2.54, 4.49), fetal haemolytic disease (OR 2.24, 95% CI 1.43, 3.50) and lower maternal education. The risk of pre-eclampsia was not associated with the mother's employment outside the home and did not differ between immigrants vs. Israeli-born mothers or between groups of women whose fathers had been born in Western Asia, North Africa or Europe. Effects of each risk factor were similar within first and subsequent births. These results lend no support to the hypothesis that there is a fundamental difference between pre-eclampsia in a first pregnancy compared with that occurring in a later pregnancy; conclusions may be moderated, however, by the knowledge that the incidence of pre-eclampsia was low in this historical cohort.