Although the psychiatric consultant in the general hospital setting is frequently called on to distinguish major depression from adjustment disorder, no studies to date have examined whether the two diagnoses are in fact distinguishable. Analysis of computerized data base records from 944 cases seen by psychiatric consultants from 1981-1987 revealed 59 cases of major depression and 130 cases of adjustment disorder with depressed mood. Patients with major depression were more likely to be older (p < 0.001), widowed (p < 0.001), and living alone (p < 0.005). Patients with adjustment disorder with depressed mood received higher ratings on Axis IV (p < 0.01), and lower severity of illness ratings (p < 0.001) were seen later in the hospital stay (p < 0.05), and they were more likely to be rated by the consultant as improved by the time the case was terminated (p < 0.001). The results suggest that the two disorders may be distinguished in the consultation population and that adjustment disorder with depressed mood may have descriptive validity in the medical inpatient setting.