We examined the extent to which the intracellular polymerization of sickle hemoglobin (HbS) can account for the severity of anemia and of vaso-occlusive manifestations in the various sickling syndromes. Polymer formation in sickle cell disease depends principally on the intraerythrocytic hemoglobin composition and concentration. In our studies, the polymer fraction in sickle red cells was determined from reported mean values for hemoglobin composition and mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC) in 12 groups of patients with sickle hemoglobinopathies (homozygotes for HbS, with and without coexistent alpha-thalassemia or various forms of the hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin [HPFH], beta+-, beta 0-, and delta beta-thalassemia, and heterozygotes for HbS with HbA). The calculated HbS polymer fractions at full deoxygenation and at physiologic oxygen saturation values were closely correlated with mean blood hemoglobin concentrations. In addition, polymer fraction correlated with the ranking of the sickling syndromes by vaso-occlusive severity. We find that polymer fraction accounts for about 80% of the variability in hemolytic and clinical severity. The method of analysis presented here provides a quantitative and systematic means of assessing the role of polymer formation in the pathophysiologic manifestations of the sickling syndromes. Our results support the hypothesis that the intracellular polymerization of HbS is the primary determinant of the severity of both anemia and clinical symptomatology in the sickle hemoglobinopathies.