Acute ST segment elevation is regarded generally as the sine qua non of evolving Q wave myocardial infarction (MI) because such electrocardiographic (ECG) injury is believed to be a marker of transmural ischemia and a forerunner of transmural necrosis. Alternatively, ST segment depression with or without T wave inversion is viewed as the dominant ECG feature of non-Q wave MI. However, this hypothesis has not been assessed prospectively in an acute MI population. We analyzed 2,304 serial ECGs at study entry (admission), day 2, day 3, and predischarge (mean, 10.2 ± 2 days) from 576 patients with creatine kinase MB confirmed acute non-Q wave MI to determine what percentage of patients with early ST segment elevation culminated in subsequent Q wave development. Of this group, 187 patients (32%) exhibited 1 mm or greater ST segment elevation in two or more contiguous entry ECG leads. Of those patients whose non-Q wave MI could be localized on the basis of diagnostic admission ST segment shifts, the prevalence of early ST segment elevation was 43% (187 of 439). The sum total mean (± SD) peak ST segment elevation by lead group (anterior, inferior, lateral) was 4.0 ± 2.4, 4.5 ± 2.4, and 2.5 ± 0.6 mm, respectively. Despite this, only 20% of patients with ST segment elevation (37 of 187) developed Q waves. Of 252 patients who exhibited early ST segment depression or T wave inversion or both, 39 (15%) evolved subsequent Q waves. Thus, while the prevalence of early ST segment elevation in acute evolving non-Q wave MI was higher than previously reported, 80% of patients with and 85% of patients without ST segment elevation and absent Q waves on the admission ECG did not develop subsequent Q waves during a 2-week period of observation (p = NS). In addition, when patients with ST segment elevation were compared with patients with ST segment depression or T wave inversions or both, there were no between-group differences in log peak creatine kinase (404 vs. 383 IU), reinfarction (6% vs. 8%), postinfarction angina (50% vs. 42%), or early recurrent ischemia (49% vs. 45%), defined as postinfarction angina with transient ECG changes. Thus, in patients who present with initial acute non-Q wave MI, ST segment shifts on admission are unreliable predictors of subsequent Q wave evolution and do not discriminate significant differences in postinfarction outcome. In particular, ST segment elevation during the early hours of evolving infarction is not an invariable harbinger of subsequent Q wave development.