Previous research has raised questions regarding the necessity of the frontal cortex in autobiographical memory and the role that it plays in actively retrieving contextual information associated with personally relevant events. Autobiographical memory was studied in patients with unilateral excisions restricted to the frontal cortex or temporal lobe involving the amygdalo-hippocampal region and in normal controls using an event-sampling method. We examined accuracy of free recall, use of strategies during retrieval and memory for specific aspects of the autobiographical events, including temporal order. Patients with temporal lobe excisions were impaired in autobiographical recall. By contrast, patients with frontal cortical excisions exhibited normal autobiographical recall but were less likely to use temporal order spontaneously to organize event retrieval. Instruction to organize retrieval by temporal order failed to improve recall in temporal lobe patients and increased the incidence of plausible intrusion errors in left temporal patients. In contrast, patients with frontal cortical excisions now surpassed control subjects in recall of autobiographical events. Furthermore, the retrieval accuracy for the temporal order of diary events was not impaired in these patients. In a subsequent cued recall test, temporal lobe patients were impaired in their memory for the details of the diary events and their context. In conclusion, a basic impairment in autobiographical memory (including memory for temporal context) results from damage to the temporal lobe and not the frontal cortex. Patients with frontal excisions fail to use organizational strategies spontaneously to aid retrieval but can use these effectively if instructed to do so.