The role of vitamin E in human nutrition was studied by investigation of patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) and associated pancreatic insufficiency. Vitamin E status was assessed by measurement of the plasma concentration of the principal circulating isomer, alpha-tocopherol. Results of such determinations in 52 CF patients with pancreatogenic steatorrhea revealed that all were deficient in the vitamin. The extent of decreased plasma tocopherol varied markedly but correlated with indices of intestinal malabsorption, such as the serum carotene concentration and percentage of dietary fat absorbed. Supplementation with 5-10 times the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E in a water-miscible form increased the plasma alpha-tocopherol concentrations to normal in all 19 CF patients so evaluated. Studies on the effects of vitamin E deficiency focused on possible hematologic alterations. An improved technique was developed to measure erythrocyte hemolysis in vitro in the presence of hydrogen peroxide. While erythrocyte suspensions from control subjects demonstrated resistance to hemolysis during a 3-h incubation, all samples from tocopherol-deficient CF patients showed abnormal oxidant susceptibility, evidenced by greater than 5% hemoglobin release. The degree of peroxide-induced hemolysis was related to the plasma alpha-tocopherol concentration in an inverse, sigmoidal manner. The possibility of in vivo hemolysis was assessed by measuring the survival of (51)Cr-labeled erythrocytes in 19 vitamin-E deficient patients. A moderate but statistically significant decrease in the mean (51)Cr erythrocyte half-life value was found in this group. Measurement of erythrocyte survival before and after supplementation of 6 patients with vitamin E demonstrated that the shortened erythrocyte lifespan could be corrected to normal with this treatment. Other hematologic indices in deficient subjects, however, were normal and did not change upon supplementation with vitamin E. It is concluded that CF is invariably associated with vitamin E deficiency, provided that the patient in question has pancreatic achylia and is not taking supplementary doses of tocopherol. Concomitant hematologic effects consistent with mild hemolysis, but not anemia, occur and may be reversed with vitamin E therapy. Patients with CF should be given daily doses of a water-miscible form of vitamin E to correct the deficiency.