The developing lung contains surfactant protein (SP) C mRNA levels comparable to term values before mature type II cells and alveolar surfactant lipids are detectable. Estimates of the amount of mature SP-C in the alveolar lavages of preterm lungs are not available. We used an antibody to a recombinant human SP-C to measure the amount of SP-C in alveolar lavages of preterm fetal rabbits, ventilated preterm rabbits, and term rabbits. The amounts of SP-C were compared with the amounts of saturated phosphatidylcholine (Sat PC). Median Sat PC amounts increased about 680-fold, and median SP-C values increased by over 5,000-fold in alveolar washes from 27 days gestation to term. There was no increase in Sat PC or SP-C with ventilation at 27 and 28 days gestation, but ventilation increased both Sat PC and SP-C at 29 days gestation. The molar percent of SP-C relative to Sat PC also increased with gestational age and with ventilation at 29 days gestation. proSP-C was abundant in a membrane fraction from lung tissue at 27 and 28 days gestation when minimal mature SP-C was detected in alveolar washes. At 29 days and at term, proSP-C decreased in membrane fractions. The preterm lung that is surfactant lipid deficient is also severely deficient in mature SP-C.