opularly referred to as the “Alton giant,” the Illinois-born Robert Wadlow was the world’s tallest man and was well-liked by people all over the country. But long before he became famous, he had to face the difficulty of being the only different one, and find a way to leave his mark on a planet where giants are extinct.
Tragically, the tallest man in recorded human history will later die at 22 years after developing a septic blister from a poorly-fitted brace. It seems like a pretty sad way to go for such an iconic person. But before he died, he lived his life to the fullest, leaving a legacy as large as he was.
The Life and Size of Robert Perishing Wadlow
Robert Perishing Wadlow was born on February 22, 1918, in Alton, Illinois, U.S.A. At birth, he appeared to be a healthy baby weighing up to 8.7 pounds with no indication of becoming the world’s tallest man. However, before the first year was over, it had become apparent that he was set to be a unique boy. By his first birthday, he was already over 3 feet tall! At the age of 5, Robert Wadlow was 5 feet 4 inches tall. By then, he was wearing clothes that were initially intended for a 17-year old male. He had outgrown his father by the time he was eight years old. He weighed 200 pounds and stood 6 feet 2 inches tall, 3 inches taller than his 5 feet 11 inches father.
As a teenager, he was the tallest boy scout ever at 13, standing at 7 feet 4 inches tall. Everything he needed was custom-made — his parents modified his uniforms, sleeping bags, and tents to suit his incredible size.
Robert broke the record for the world’s tallest man in 1936 when he was 18. He was 8 feet, 4inches tall. He wore a custom made size 37AA (47 cm long) shoes, and his items of clothing required three times the amount of fabric for regular items. All of this was already so impressive, but the gentle giant was not done growing.
Doctors explained his condition by claiming hyperplasia of his pituitary gland that resulted in an abnormally high level of the human growth hormones. This meant that his body was set to grow much more than the average person. Even at the time of his death, his body had not stopped growing and didn’t show any signs of slowing down.
His body demanded the growth — his peak daily food consumption was about 8000 calories! The Wadlow man weighed 222.71 kg on his 21st birthday. When he was 22, 18 days before his death, he was measured to be 8 feet 11.1 inches tall easily becoming the world’s tallest man. Also, Robert holds the record for the world’s largest hands — his hands measured 12 inches from his wrist to the middle finger’s tip.
Fitting Into A Normal Lifestyle
Admittedly, Robert was an extraordinary child, but his parents tried to make his life as normal as possible. They did not want him to feel so different that he stuck out like a sore thumb. Therefore, his parents ensured that he participated in everyday activities like his four younger average-sized siblings as the world’s tallest man.
However, the world was not prepared to accommodate someone of Robert’s size. Several physical structures were inconvenient for him. Homes, public buildings, and schools were not designed for the young man’s physical attributes. Even everyday items were too small for him to use adequately.
Still, the Wadlows always found a way. They always built custom-made items to ensure Robert was included in most activities. For instance, a special desk was made for him so he could participate in elementary school. Also, his parents made a special seat at the meal table so he could eat with his family.
Of course, Robert leading an everyday life required extra effort, but the young Wadlow had an enviable can-do spirit. It must have been challenging to grow up as the only giant in an average-sized family, but Robert did not let this get him down. He never seemed to begrudge the concessions he had to make because of his unusual height.
Instead, Wadlow maintained a polite, gentle manner and his love for the outdoors. He pursued regular interests and brought an outstanding level of dedication to everything he did. As a passion, he collected stamps and was particularly fond of photography. Also, he loved to play the guitar and usually spent his free time doing so. Robert was involved with the Boys Scout well into his teenage years. He even applied to the local Shurtleff College to study law. Eventually, he became a Freemason when he joined the Order of DeMolay.
Robert’s Path to Fame
In 1936, when Robert Wadlow was 18 years old, the Ridling Brothers noticed him. They figured he’d be a great addition to their show, especially if he worked with the little people they already had on board. So, they invited him to join their traveling circus, and he agreed.
Soon, Robert was traveling all over the country to perform — regularly featuring in the newspapers. As expected, he drew a mighty crowd and went on to perform in huge shows held in places like Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden.
Many people wanted a photograph with him. People came in their troops to meet the puzzling giant. And when they did, they loved Robert easily. His personality was attractive, with him being easy-going, polite, and well-mannered.
In 1938, the international shoe company offered Wadlow a new job. Peters Shoe Company wanted him to join them on a promotional tour. Robert went on to become the face of the brand and promote the company. Plus, he now got free shoes — his custom-made size 37AA footwear was a welcome addition to the new job package.
The promotional tour took him and his father to over 800 towns in their family car, which his father modified for Robert’s comfort. The older Wadlow removed the passenger seat so that Robert could stretch out his legs from the backseat.
The Ever-Growing Limbs
Sadly, Robert endured weakness in his knees and feet — he always required leg braces and a cane to walk. His extreme height caused him to suffer from a lack of feeling in his legs and feet. Robert reported whatever minimal feeling he got in his legs as a constant tingling.
Undeterred by the prognosis of weak limbs, Robert chose to walk on his own and never use a wheelchair. Therefore, doctors fitted special braces to his legs so he could do just that. This was how he was able to stand up straight at all.
Unfortunately, one of the braces started rubbing against Robert’s ankle — and he couldn’t feel it because he had barely any sensation in his legs. It soon formed a blister during his appearance at Michigan’s Manistee National Forest Festival. Desperately, doctors rushed a transfusion and an emergency surgery in hopes of helping Robert. Sadly, besides the issues with his legs, Robert also has a weakened immune system and was unable to survive the infection.
On July 15th, 1940, Robert Perishing Wadlow passed away at the age of 22. His body was laid to rest in a casket that weighed over 1000 pounds and was 10 feet 9 inches long. It took 12 men to move the casket out of his funeral, with eight more assisting. His funeral was thronging with thousands of the gentle giant’s fans, who were all devastated by the loss of the icon.
A Tall Legacy
Not many people get to leave behind a literal legacy, but then not many people grow 8 feet tall. After his death, Robert’s mother destroyed most of his personal belongings to discourage collectors from profiting off his disability. Still, there are a few physical reminders of the gentle giant around the world.
For instance, Robert Wadlow has a life-size bronze statue in Alton on the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine campus — erected in 1985. In addition to this, in the Alton Museum of History and Art, there are photographs of Wadlow, his third-grade school desk, a few pairs of his shoes, and his size-25 Masonic ring, among other things. Moreso, three Guinness World Records Museums have erected statues of him around North America.
Robert Perishing Wadlow’s story is inspiring. He was a man with a unique condition, but he didn’t let that hold him back. Instead, he chose to live a kind, exciting life pursuing his passions. There couldn’t have been a better legacy for the world’s tallest man in recorded history.