The development of the first meiotic prophase stages was studied in two series of human female embryos and fetuses aborted for social reasons. The first series (64 embryos or fetuses aborted at 6-24 weeks of gestation) was used mainly to perfect the methods applied to obtain chromosome preparations and synaptonemal complex spreads. The second series (37 embryos or fetuses aborted at 9-24 weeks of gestation) was used to establish the timing and to charcterize the different stages of prophase I. Leptotene-zygotene figures were observed in some embryos at 10 weeks of gestation. Typical zygotene figures were seen at 11-22 weeks. Pachytenes were first observed at 12-13 weeks, and the proportion of these figures was usually lower than 40%. Diplotenes were seen in fetuses with a gestational age of 14 weeks or more. The duration of the process in the human female is thus about 3-4 weeks, a similar period to that described for the male. © 1987 Springer-Verlag.