The high morbidity after severe thermal insult is believed to be related partially to a resultant decrease in immunocompetence. We tested the ability of phytohemagglutinin (PHA) and Concanavalin (Con A) to stimulate lymphocyte transformation in 17 patients with moderate to severe thermal injury (>25% BSA). The patients acted as their own controls and the per cent change in their mitogen response was measured over time. Eight acutely burned patients who subsequently developed severe sepsis (Group I) had decreased ability (mean, 12% of normal) to proliferate in response to PHA, and six of these died of severe sepsis. The depressed response appeared 4 to 7 days postinjury and predated clinical evidence of sepsis by 2 to 4 days. Cells from four patients who had mild infectious complications (Group II) demonstrated greatly augmented mitogen responses (mean + 243%) approximately 7 to 10 days postinjury. Five burn patients whose clinical course was sepsis free (Group III) exhibited only minimal changes in their mitogen responses (mean +30%). Although the Con A responses of the patients' cells corresponded less to their pathology, Group I patients whose cells exhibited depressed PHA responsiveness also had diminished Con A responses. Group II patients' cells also showed increases in Con A-induced stimulation. Group HI patients, who had only slightly augmented PHA responses, had minimal decreases of the Con A-induced lymphocyte transformation. Many severely burned patients develop septicemia as a result of their large wound surfaces. The appearance of decreases in mitogen-induced proliferation, however, appears to characterize those patients who will be unable to handle the septic challenge.