20 DSM-III-R melancholics with clinically evident diurnal symptoms and 20 controls were assessed with a battery of neuropsychological tests, a test of maximum voluntary hand-grip, and neuroendocrine measures of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function morning and evening in a 24-h period, using a balanced design. The morning pattern of neuropsychological impairment in the melancholics was comprehensive, affecting attention and concentration/working memory, episodic memory, reaction time and, strikingly, the speed of simultaneous match to sample, which was performed more slowly than the version of the task delayed to 0 or 4 s. The melancholics were significantly weaker than controls, on a measure of maximal voluntary contraction. Significantly improved neuropsychological function was seen in the melancholic patients in the evening, in line with diurnal improvement in mood; there was also a large increase in strength. Slowing on the digit symbol substitution test, the simultaneous match to sample task, total errors on the match to sample and hand-grip remained impaired in the evening compared to controls; other neuropsychological measures were no longer statistically different from control values which were often worsened. Neuroendocrine measures showed significantly raised levels of cortisol and ACTH morning and evening in the melancholics. Morning cortisol in the melancholics correlated with the diurnal improvement in neuropsychological functioning. The results have implications for the timing of neuropsychological assessment in major depression. Indices of neuropsychological and motor function may be as reliable quantitative estimates of illness severity as subjective estimates of mood.