To investigate the suggestion that the incidence of polycythemia vera has increased in recent decades, we ascertained secular trends in the incidence of polycythemia vera in Olmsted County, Minnesota, over the 55-year period, 1935–1989. The inpatient and outpatient medical records of all potential cases of polycythemia vera in Olmsted County residents were reviewed and the diagnostic criteria of the Polycythemia Vera Study Group were applied. We found no indication of an increase in the age- and sex-adjusted incidence of polycythemia vera, which averaged 1.9 per 100,000 person-years (95% C.I., 1.4–2.5) over the study period. Incidence rates increased with age, and age-adjusted incidence rates were greater for men (2.8 per 100,000 person-years; 95% C.I., 1.8–3.9) than for women (1.3 per 100,000 person-years; 95% C.I., 0.7–1.9), with the highest incidence rate (23.5 per 100,000 person-years) among men aged 70–79 years. Survival was reduced in this inception cohort of 50 cases, compared to that expected for individuals of like age and sex (P < 0.0001); median survival following diagnosis was 7.2 years. © 1994 Wiley-Liss, Inc.