The 23-year-old from Bedford ran an exemplary race on the 6,600m course in Turin city centre, covering every move apart from the last one when Derartu Tulu, Ethiopia's 10,000m champion, came past her in the final 100 metres to take the title for the second time in three years.
Radcliffe, her head nodding in characteristic fashion as she maintained contact with a succession of leaders, including the two Irish entrants Sonia O'Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan, made her own move with 200 metres remaining as she went to the front past the reigning champion, Gete Wani.
For a few moments it seemed as if her judgment had been perfect. But then Wani's compatriot, always a fast finisher, moved smoothly past to win in 20min 53 sec. Radcliffe's time was 20:55.
"I really thought I was going to win it," Radcliffe said, "although I'm pleased with the silver. When I went away at the end I really thought I had got the gold, but she just came back to me from nowhere."
It was the best performance by a woman representing Britain since Zola Budd won the title in 1985 and 1986 and Liz McColgan took the silver medal in 1987.
It was this event which brought Radcliffe to international prominence in 1992 when, on a snowbound course in Boston, she won the junior title ahead of China's future world record breaker, Wang Junxia. Her previous best performance at senior level was fifth place at Durham in 1995. "It feels as though I have made the transition from junior to senior level now," Radcliffe said.
Now that she has completed her education at Loughborough University, Radcliffe has been able to dedicate herself more fully to the athlete's life. She missed the British trials earlier this month because she was training at altitude in Albuquerque. Yesterday her long time coach, Alex Stanton, and both her parents were present to see her reap a fine reward for her efforts.
Tulu, who won in Durham two years ago, said her victory made up a little bit for her disappointment of last year, when she dropped to fourth place after having to turn back and retrieve a lost shoe.
Fine runs by Lucy Elliott (18th) and Hayley Haining (22nd) earned Britain fourth place in the women's team event, where Ireland, thanks to the seventh and ninth place finishes of McKiernan and O'Sullivan, took the bronze medal.
Britain's main hope in the men's race, the European champion Jon Brown, was unable to improve on his 12th place of last year. He finished 14th in a contest that saw Kenya's Paul Tergat earn a hat-trick of titles after a stupendous struggle with Morocco's world 10,000m record holder Salah Hissou.
"This was the hardest of my three wins," said Tergat, who also beat Hissou into second place last year. "It was probably the hardest race I've ever had."
Hissou complained that his progress had been impeded by Kenyan team tactics. "I had to fight against a group of them," he said. It is a complaint that has been voiced at nearly every world championship of recent years. These Kenyans... they are all too strong.
Brown, whose European title was won in cloying mud three months ago, ruled out his medal chances once he saw the speedy course, much of it run on roads which had been turfed over at a reported cost of $1m (pounds 630,000). At least Primo Nebiolo, the IAAF president, got a run for his money in his home city.