The purpose of this study was to determine if the pattern of ventilation, by itself, influences oxygenation during anesthesia and surgery and examine the hypothesis that progressive pulmonary atelectasis may occur during constant ventilation whenever periodic hyperventilation is lacking, but is reversible by passive hyperinflation of the lungs. Eighteen surgical patients, ranging in age from 24 to 87 yr, without known pulmonary disease, were studied during intraabdominal procedures and one radical mastectomy. Although ventilation remained constant, changes occurred in arterial oxygen tension and in total pulmonary compliance, with an average fall of 22% in oxygen tension and 15% in total pulmonary compliance. This fall in oxygen tension supports the hypothesis that progressive mechanical atelectasis may lead to increased venous admixture to arterial blood. The influence of the ventilator pattern on atelectasis and shunting is further illustrated by the reversibility of the fall in oxygen tension that follows hyperinflation. A relation between the degree of ventilation and the magnitude of fall in arterial oxygen tension was found, where large tidal volumes appear to protect against falls in oxygen tension, while shallow tidal volumes lead to atelectasis and increased shunting with impaired oxygenation.