Tests based on three different principles are reported to measure the activity of von Willebrand factor (VWF): ristocetin cofactor (VWF:RCo), collagen binding (VWF:CB), and the so-called "activity ELISA" (VWF:MoAb). We measured these and other diagnostic parameters in a population of 123 randomly selected female study controls, age 18-45 years. Type O subjects had significantly lower levels than non-O subjects in each test. Race differences were seen in all tests except VWF:RCo, with Caucasians having significantly lower levels than African-Americans. ABO differences accounted for 19% of the total variance in VWF:Ag (P < 0.0001) and race for 7% (P < 0.0001), for a total of 26%. Both effects were mediated through VWF:Ag and were independent. VWF:Ag level was the primary determinant of VWF function, accounting for approximately 60% of the variance in VWF:RCo and VWF:CB and 54% of the variance in factor VIII. The ratio VWF:RCo/VWF:Ag differed significantly by race within blood group. The median ratios were 0.97 for type O Caucasians vs. 0.79 for type O African-Americans and 0.94 for non-O Caucasians vs. 0.76 for non-O African-Americans. The ratio VWF:CB/VWF:Ag did not vary. This suggests racial differences in the interaction of VWF with GP1b but not with subendothelium. Alternatively, VWF:RCo may be regulated to maintain a relatively constant plasma level in the presence of excessive VWF:Ag. This heterogeneity within the normal population is partially responsible for the difficulty in defining diagnostic limits for von Willebrand disease.