Definitive histologic diagnosis of ulcerative colitis relies upon mucosal architectural distortion and inflammation in the appropriate clinical setting. Although crypt branching, atrophy, and loss are usually present in first biopsies from adults with ulcerative colitis, it has been our impression that features of chronicity are often lacking in first biopsies from children. To test this hypothesis, initial rectal biopsies and follow-up biopsies and/or colonic resections from 53 children (age 15 months to 17 years) and 38 adults (age 21-76 years) with ulcerative colitis were examined in a blinded fashion for villiform surface, crypt atrophy, branching crypts, lamina propria inflammation, crypt abscesses, cryptitis, and basal plasma cells. Mucosal architecture was classified as normal, focally abnormal, or diffusely abnormal. Medical records were reviewed for confirmatory evidence of ulcerative colitis and for duration of symptoms before biopsy. In 87 of 91 biopsies, the lamina propria contained a mixed inflammatory infiltrate. Crypt abscesses and cryptitis were common in both groups. Initial biopsies from children were less likely to show diffuse architectural abnormalities (17 of 53, 32.1%) compared with biopsies from adults (22 of 38, 57.9% p <0.05). Duration of symptoms before diagnosis was significantly shorter in children (mean 17.5 weeks) compared with adults (mean 54.9 weeks). In summary, initial rectal biopsies from children with ulcerative colitis are less likely to show diagnostic mucosal architectural distortion than biopsies from adults. This difference may be related to a shorter duration of symptoms before biopsy.