Recent work aimed at providing an absolute measurement of tissue haemoglobin saturation and a new instrument development, the spatially resolved spectrometer (SRS), are discussed. The theoretical basis of operation of this device and its hardware implementation are described and the results of validation studies on tissue simulating phantoms are presented as are preliminary measurements on human volunteers and observations on patients undergoing neurosurgery. In its present form the instrument appears to produce absolute haemoglobin saturation values for resting human skeletal muscle and the normally perfused human head which are rather low based on physiological expectations. However, we obtained a tight correlation between the saturation values measured by the SRS instrument and those obtained from blood-gas analysis of samples drawn from a jugular bulb catheter in one neurosurgery subject during clamping of the right carotid arteries.© (1995) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.