Background: We sought to evaluate the hypothesis that the high incidence of cutaneous melanoma in white persons in central Alabama is associated with a predominance of Irish and Scots descent. Methods: Frequencies of country of ancestry reports were tabulated. The reports were also converted to scores that reflect proportional countries of ancestry in individuals. Using the scores, we computed aggregate country of ancestry indices as estimates of group ancestry composition. HLA-DRB1*04 allele frequencies and relationships to countries of ancestry were compared in probands and controls. Results were compared to those of European populations with HLA-DRB1*04 frequencies. Results: Ninety evaluable adult white cutaneous melanoma probands and 324 adult white controls reported countries of ancestry of their grandparents. The respective frequencies of Ireland, and Scotland and "British Isles" reported countries of ancestry were significantly greater in probands than in controls. The respective frequencies of Wales, France, Italy and Poland were significantly greater in controls. 16.7% of melanoma probands and 23.8% of controls reported "Native American" ancestry; the corresponding "Native American" country of ancestry index was not significantly different in probands and controls. The frequency of HLA-DRB1*04 was significantly greater in probands, but was not significantly associated with individual or aggregate countries of ancestry. The frequency of DRB1*04 observed in Alabama was compared to DRB1*04 frequencies reported from England, Wales, Ireland, Orkney Island, France, Germany, and Australia. Conclusion: White adults with cutaneous melanoma in central Alabama have a predominance of Irish, Scots, and "British Isles" ancestry and HLA-DRB1*04 that likely contributes to their high incidence of cutaneous melanoma. © 2004 Acton et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.