This study morphometrically evaluates the glomerular anionic charge and examines the renal pathology in African women with early-onset pre-eclampsia. Polyethyleneimine-labelled anionic sites were decreased within the glomerular basement membrane in the early-onset pre-eclampsia group as compared with the control group (p < 0.02). A strong correlation (r = -0.76) was obtained between the number of anionic sites and the severity of proteinuria. Renal biopsy specimens revealed the coexistence of decreased glomerular charge with pathology of glomerular basement membrane, endothelial cells, foot processes, and mesangial cell proliferation. The loss of glomerular charge induces structural alterations of the glomerular filtration barrier and may be the mechanism responsible for proteinuria in early-onset pre-eclampsia.