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Robert Pershing Wadlow, The Tallest Man Ever

Robert Pershing Wadlow is officially recorded as the world’s tallest man, standing at a whopping 8 ft 11 inches or 2.72 metres. His is the story of a growth spurt that never ended.

When he was six years old, Wadlow was already 5 feet 7 inches and was over eight feet by the time he was sixteen.

At twenty-one, one year before his death, Wadlow officially claimed the title of the world’s tallest human ever recorded and holds it to this day.

Eighteen days before he died, doctors measured Wadlow at 8 ft 11 inches. What lies behind his immense stature, and why has his record never been beaten?

Robert Wadlow photographed with his family at their Alton, Illinois, home.

Why Wadlow’s Record Will Probably Never Be Broken

Some people have tall genes, so all the family members are tall. There is an American family called the Trapps, who all average a height of 6 ft 8 inches, claiming the accolade of the tallest family in the world.

However, Robert Wadlow’s issue was the overproduction of growth hormones controlled by the brain’s pituitary gland. Wadlow had Pituitary Gigantism, which meant his pituitary gland was far larger than it should have been.

The doctors at the time were able to make this diagnosis, but the only option available in the early years of the 20th century was to remove the gland surgically.

However, there were too many associated risks, so the decision was made not to operate.

These days, a medical issue like this can be managed, but when Wadlow was born, the science and the medication were simply not available.

What Is Pituitary Gigantism?

Pituitary Gigantism is a condition where a person has too much HGH (Human Growth Hormone) and, as a result, literally does not stop growing. A tumour on the pituitary gland causes Pituitary Gigantism. 

The HGH ensures the body grows even after the bone growth plates have fused; this can also cause the internal organs to become enlarged.

Pituitary Gigantism exists today, the difference being that the condition is recognised and treatable. It’s a serious disorder. Apart from excessive height, sufferers can have gaps in their teeth, large hands and feet, and enlarged internal organs.

Pituitary Gigantism does not predispose to a long life because the disease has a whole host of problems, including high cholesterol, hypertension, Type 2 Diabetes, arthritis, and spinal problems. 

Consequently, Wadlow was never destined to have a long life expectancy, but nonetheless, his death was still premature at age 22.

Playing Catch Up

Even in the 1980s, medical science had not advanced enough to manage some pituitary gland problems.

For most people, growth stops at the end of puberty when the chemical messages from the pituitary gland cease. However, for a Turkish man called Sultan Kösen, who was born in 1982, this didn’t happen. 

His growth exploded at age ten due to a tumour on his pituitary gland, undiagnosed for a further ten years. 

Once the tumour was removed, Sultan’s growth stopped. By this time, he was 8 feet 2.8 inches tall, insufficient height to challenge Wadlow’s record.

Making The Most Of Life

Wadlow celebrated his difference in a manner that was way ahead of its time. He toured America and made numerous appearances, becoming a noted superstar of his day and avoiding the freak status of earlier decades.

Image from 1938 shows Robert Wadlow next to actresses Maureen O’Sullivan and Ann Morris.

This wasn’t his first choice of occupation, though. Initially, he had wanted to study law, but this only lasted for a term after high school.

In 1936, Wadlow toured with the Ringling Brothers Circus and appeared at the Boston Garden and Madison Square Garden. He appeared as himself and never wore a costume despite requests from the circus owners that he should do so.

In 1938, he started touring under the sponsorship of the International Shoe Company, which was responsible for his huge handmade shoes. The itinerary was arduous.

He visited 800 towns across 41 states, clocking up a distance of around 300,000 miles. 

Long days in the car were uncomfortable, so Wadlow’s father removed the front passenger seat from the vehicle so his son could sit in the back and stretch his legs out.

Wadlow had a calm and optimistic approach to life and managed his stature well on these tours.

The only thing he took exception to was people kicking him or grabbing at his legs, which might sound strange, but his height was so unbelievable that many people genuinely thought he was walking on stilts.

The Untimely End Of Robert Wadlow

Robert Pershing Wadlow died in his sleep on the 15th of July 1940, aged just 22. Wadlow wore an iron brace to help support his legs, and this ill-fitting device caused a blister, which became septic and ultimately ended his life.

Wadlow was touring at the time and hadn’t been aware of the wound. He refused to go to a hospital, a decision that might have saved his life. The infection continued to worsen, and he could not be saved.

It sounds odd that something seemingly trivial as a blister could end Wadlow’s life, but there is a bigger story.

Wadlow, unsurprisingly, had huge feet. His work shoes were sized 37AA in US measurements, equivalent to a UK size 36 or EU 75. 

Robert Wadlow’s size shoe located at Snyder Shoes in Manistee, Michigan. Photo by Doug Caldwell.

When he was 20, Wadlow started touring with sponsorship from the International Shoe Company, which provided him with custom-made shoes at no cost.

Ironically, it was during one of these tours that Wadlow became seriously ill because of an infected blister that ulcerated and which he could not feel.

After riding in a parade for Independence Day at the Manistee National Forest Festival in Michigan, he came down with a fever, and this was the infection that killed him.

Due to his immense height, Wadlow was also incredibly heavy, although he appeared very thin. As a result, he had a lot of foot and ankle problems throughout his life, which is why doctors recommended he wear metal support braces.

Foot infections plagued Wadlow, and one episode when he was 17 required a stint of eight weeks in hospital.

Dr Charles Humberd, who had an interest in gigantism, examined Wadlow a year later, in 1936, when he was 18. Humberd wrote this fascinating quote about Wadlow:

“He is a pre-acromegalic giant of phenomenal size, molded on a vast scale, colossal and stupendous in bulk, truly Gargantuan in all his proportions, and symmetrically built.”

Humberd also noted that Wadlow lacked sensation in his feet, particularly touch, temperature, and pain. It’s not surprising, therefore, that sores and injuries went undetected and developed into more serious problems.

That aside, one wonders just how much access Wadlow had to his feet, if any.

Wadlow’s Funeral – A Giant In Life As Well As Death

Robert Wadlow is buried in Illinois. His coffin was specially made and weighed over 1,000 lbs, needing 16 pallbearers to support it. At the time of his death, Wadlow weighed more than 400 pounds.

Such was his fame that the funeral home was open for two days to allow members of the public to view his body, with local reports stating that the queue to view was up to three blocks long. 

It’s estimated that more than 30,000 people viewed Wadlow’s body or came to the funeral. The funeral home director said the carpet was worn threadbare by the sheer volume of visitors.

Around 1,000 people attended Wadlow’s funeral, with a service conducted outside the funeral home and hymns played on the organ in the local church nearby, conveyed by a system of amplifiers to the gathered crowd.

Ironically, Wadlow had bought this church organ with some of his tour earnings.

Transported from the funeral home to the cemetery in a regular hearse, the rear doors had to be left open because the coffin was too long to fit. A black cloth was draped over the portion of the coffin sticking out of the back of the vehicle.

Robert Wadlow was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Upper Alton, Illinois. His burial vault was covered over with concrete in order to deter ghoulish grave robbers, and his family destroyed most of his possessions so they didn’t appear later as freak memorabilia.

A small number of personal items were donated to the Alton Museum of History and Art.

In Memoriam

In 1985, Wadlow’s home town, Alton, erected a life-sized bronze statue of their famous giant, a permanent memorial to the world’s tallest man.

Statue of Robert Wadlow in Alton, Illinois, outside Alton Museum of History and Art.

The sculpture was created by Ned Giberson at the Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville and is located at the main campus of the School of Dentistry at Southern Illinois University.

In 1975, a documentary about the ‘Alton Giant’ called ‘The Story of Robert’ revealed that Robert was a soft and gentle character with a good sense of humour. He is the most accurate definition of a gentle giant.


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