To determine whether stratifying hereditary spherocytosis by degree of severity could provide guidelines regarding which patients would benefit from splenectomy, we evaluated the clinical characteristics of 80 patients (63 children) and 27 healthy relatives. In addition to routine hematologic determinations, osmotic fragility, autohemolysis, erythrocyte spectrin content, and erythrocyte membrane lipid phosphorus were measured and correlated with the disease severity. Four categories were identified: (1) spherocytosis as a trait in symptom-free relatives of patients with recessively inherited disease; (2) mild and (3) moderate spherocytosis, largely observed in patients with dominantly inherited disease; and (4) severe spherocytosis, observed in only two patients, who were characterized by recessive inheritance and transfusion dependence. By the identification of carriers, a recessive mode of inheritance could be demonstrated in 20% of the families with spherocytosis. The erythrocyte spectrin concentration was normal in carriers and patients with mild spherocytosis, and was significantly reduced in the moderate and severe states of the disease. This difference was not accounted for by reduced membrane area of the cells, as measured by the phospholipid concentration per cell. We conclude that patients with mild spherocytosis usually do not require splenectomy during childhood and adolescence; patients with moderate or severe disease should have splenectomy. Patients with severe spherocytosis have a partial response to splenectomy but a considerable degree of increased hemolysis persists. Most patients with less than 80% of normal spectrin content require splenectomy.