This paper presents an analytical and experimental methodology to determine the physical strength of cell adhesion to a planar membrane containing one set of adhesion molecules. In particular, the T lymphocyte adhesion due to the interaction of the lymphocyte function associated molecule 1 on the surface of the cell, with its counter-receptor, intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1), on the planar membrane, was investigated. A micromanipulation method and mathematical analysis of cell deformation were used to determine (a) the area of conjugation between the cell and the substrate and (b) the energy that must be supplied to detach a unit area of the cell membrane from its substrate. T lymphocytes stimulated with phorbol 12-myristate-13-acetate (PMA) conjugated strongly with the planar membrane containing purified ICAM-1. The T lymphocytes attached to the planar membrane deviated occasionally from their round configuration by extending pseudopods but without changing the size of the contact area. These adherent cells were dramatically deformed and then detached when pulled away from the planar membrane by a micropipette. Detachment occurred by a gradual decrease in the radius of the contact area. The physical strength of adhesion between a PMA-stimulated T lymphocyte and a planar membrane containing 1,000 ICAM-1 molecules/micron 2 was comparable to the strength of adhesion between a cytotoxic T cell and its target cell. The comparison of the adhesive energy density, measured at constant cell shape, with the model predictions suggests that the physical strength of cell adhesion may increase significantly when the adhesion bonds in the contact area are immobilized by the actin cytoskeleton.