Patients expected to need at least three units of blood for their elective cardiovascular or orthopaedic surgery, were allocated randomly to receive intravenous (i.v.) Epoetin alfa 600 IU kg−1 (n = 27), 300 IU kg−1 (n = 30) or placebo (n = 23), on days 1, 4 and 7. Provided haemoglobin ≥ 11 g dL−1, one unit of blood was collected on days 1, 4, 7, 11 and 14. Iron supplementation was given throughout the study. Surgery was scheduled between days 18 and 21. Significantly more patients treated with Epoetin alfa (100% for 600 IU kg −1 ; 97% for 300 IU kg−1) were able to donate ≥ 4 units of blood compared with placebo (78%) (P = 0.011 and P = 0.032). No significant differences were seen in total patient exposure to homologous blood (7.4%, 3.3% and 17.4%, respectively). Mean red cell volume donated (P = 0.005 for 600 IU kg−1 ; P = 0.158 for 300 IU kg−1 both vs. placebo) and production (P < 0.001 and P = 0.012, respectively) were dose related. Twenty-four patients became iron deficient. No differences in the incidence of adverse events were seen between the groups.