Little data exist for the mechanical properties of individual irreversible or reversible sickle cells (ISC and RSC, respectively), nor is the process of ISC formation well understood. For oxygenated ISC and density-fractionated RSC, we have used micropipette techniques to measure cell surface area (SA) and volume (V), membrane shear elastic modulus (mu), time constant for viscoelastic shape recovery (tc), and hence to calculate membrane surface viscosity (eta = mu X tc). Volume loss associated with increasing cell density was accompanied by a proportionately smaller surface area decrease; SA/V ratio thus increased for denser cells, with ISC having the highest values. Membrane area loss by fragmentation must thus be accompanied by an accelerated decrease in cell volume. ISC had relatively rigid membranes (mu 130% above normal controls) and tc close to normal values, so that their effective membrane viscosity was more than double control. RSC had viscoelastic properties close to control, but showed wider variation between sickle cell donors and within samples. Measurements on density-separated RSC showed that, on average, mu was nearly constant, but that tc was longer for the densest cells, with their eta approaching ISC levels. A small subpopulation of RSC were found that had mu close to ISC values. Hypotonically swollen ISC (with internal hemoglobin concentration decreased to normal levels) retained their increased membrane stiffness but had markedly decreased tc, so that their eta approached normal values. The results show that elevated hemoglobin concentration influences the viscoelastic behavior of ISC and RSC, but that an irreversible change in membrane elasticity also occurs for ISC. These data suggest that ISC formation occurs via a two- stage process: (1) accelerated volume loss leading to increased cytoplasmic and effective membrane viscosity; (2) a sharp rise in membrane rigidity, presumably linked to membrane structural alteration.