When it comes to being uniquely tall, there are quite a few among us who have beaten or continue to beat all standards. But no one has yet trumped the record of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man to have ever lived on this planet. In 1940, he was the tallest man in the world to be scientifically measured.
So, who was Robert Wadlow? To understand Robert, and his story, let us go back 100 years and make the journey through the life of the “Gentleman Giant” of Alton.
Robert Wadlow has an unbeaten record of being the tallest man to ever live, confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Robert Wadlow was born in Alton, Illinois, in 1918. His stupendous growth started early in life. When he was just six months old, he weighed 30 pounds, and at 18 months, he was already 67 pounds. He continued to grow at an alarming rate, and when he was five and went to school for the first time, he was already taller than all his classmates at 5 ft,1 inch. He became taller than his father at the age of eight, and by the time he was 16, Robert had already crossed 8 ft.
Phew! That is a mind-boggling height for a teenager. He had a special desk made for him at school to accommodate his legs. Robert was like any other teenage boy who liked baseball, basketball, and football. Teachers and friends described him to be a smiling, polite, soft-spoken, ambitious young boy who rarely got angry.
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But why was he taller than everybody else? The doctors wanted to find out the reason. Robert was still growing rapidly when he went to Barnes Hospital in St Louis at the age of 12. There, the doctors examined him and discovered the reason for his astronomical growth.
The doctors diagnosed that Robert’s pituitary gland was hypertrophic, which caused the growth spurt.
Located at the base of the brain, the pituitary gland secretes hormones in our bloodstream. Robert’s pituitary gland was overactive, resulting in an abnormally high level of human growth hormone, or HGH, that made him continuously grow in height. If it were today, the doctors would probably be able to stop the growth with surgery or medicine. But in those days, that was a high-risk operation, and the doctors advised against it. They also deduced that Robert was quite at ease with his height, and it caused him no physical or mental disadvantage. In fact, his IQ was far above average. So, Robert continued to live his life as normally as possible while continuing to grow at an abnormal rate.
Robert’s belongings had to be custom-made to help him carry out his everyday routines.
Robert was like a “Gulliver” on Earth. Everything around him was made for people smaller than him. Therefore, most of his things had to be custom-made to help him. His school desk was specially made to accommodate his legs. His chairs were built as per his size, and multiple beds had to be pushed together to fit him. In fact, his father custom-designed their car by removing the front passenger seat so that Robert could stretch his legs. As the tallest boy scout ever, he also had specially designed tents, uniforms, and sleeping bags.
When he died, Robert held the record of being the tallest person to have ever lived. After his death, Robert’s mother burnt most of his belongings so that they could not be used by any collector or person to gain profit, but a few items can still be seen in the Alton Museum of History and Art.
Robert was marketed as the “Alton Giant” in the Ringling Brothers Traveling Circus and became a worldwide sensation.
He was exhibited as the “Giant of Illinois” and became so popular that he occupied the center stage instead of the side shows. But Robert didn’t care for the flamboyant, colorful life of the circus. He signed the contract under the strict terms that he would always be in suits, stay in a hotel with his father, and not wear the circus costume or the tall hats and tails to highlight his figure. In fact, it was the circus that gave him the title of “The Gentleman Giant” because of his mild, polite nature. Robert, as the tallest person in the world, soon became a nationwide superstar as he continued to travel every year, gathering a huge crowd wherever he went. But his stint with the circus was short-lived, as performance and displaying himself was not something he enjoyed.
Robert traveled with Peters Shoe Company as a spokesperson on their promotional tours.
By this time, Robert’s shoe size was 37.5, earning him the title of “Largest Feet Ever,” in addition to being the tallest person in the world. The shoe company promised to provide him shoes free of cost as long as he worked with them. This was an advantage for Robert as his enormous shoes were extremely expensive to buy. Robert traveled with Peters Shoe Company of St Louis in the mid-1930s. Together with his father, he traveled to over 800 towns covering 41 states to promote the brand. He soon became a household name.
His travels and other advertising stints took him all over the country, but Robert always looked forward to returning to Alton to be with his own family. He had a loving and supporting family, and they took great measures to ensure he continued to live as normally as possible. His life there was regular, and he was never the only center of attention.
Robert became seriously ill in 1940 due to an infection and sadly passed away at the age of 22.
By 1940, Robert found it difficult to walk but refused to use a wheelchair. The doctors fitted permanent iron braces to support his gigantic feet.
In 1940, he was on a promotional tour for Peters Shoe Company. During a professional appearance at the Manistee National Forest Festival, he complained of pain in his leg. At that time, he had been wearing a metal brace to support his knees and ankles for a while. But he had no feeling in his legs because of his size. Therefore, Robert didn’t notice that the brace was faulty and kept rubbing against his skin until too late. This led to a nasty infection that would prove fatal for him. His hotel room became a make-shift hospital. But the infection had spread too much, and despite blood transfusions, Robert died prematurely and tragically at the age of 22, on 15th July 1940.
When last measured, 18 days before his death, Robert’s height was 8ft, 11.1 inches.
Robert’s height was 8 ft, 11.1 inches, and he weighed 439 pounds on 27 June 1940. He was officially and undisputedly the tallest man in the world. After his death, he was buried in his beloved hometown of Alton, Illinois, in Oakwood Cemetery, where he still rests alongside his family. His custom-made casket was 10ft, 9 inches long, 32 inches wide, and weighed 1,000 pounds. It took 12 men and eight assistants to carry his casket during the procession. There were more than 40,000 people who came to pay respects at his funeral. The “Gentle Giant” had clearly won the hearts of many.
Robert Wadlow will likely always remain the tallest person to have ever lived because of advancements in science and medicine. Today, such phenomenal growth is usually decelerated or halted altogether by surgery or medicine. Thus, we can’t help but wonder that maybe if he had been born later, he would not have died at such a young age.
Robert’s life remains an inspiration today as he made the best out of his distinct situation.
After so many years, Robert still remains the tallest person to have ever lived, but he also occupies a special place in the hearts of those who remember him for being who he was and not what he was. When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade. Robert was the perfect example of this proverb. He was positive and always at ease with his physical stature. He dressed sophisticatedly and refused to be treated like a “freak.”
To the people of Alton or those who knew him, Robert was a normal boy like any other, who just happened to be really tall. They did not look at him as being odd. It was always the outsiders who were curious. Sometimes he had to face insensitive questions or poking in his leg to check if they were real. But Robert was always gentle and rarely got angry. He was loved by everyone who knew him.
His statues still stand tall in the Guinness Book Of World Record museum and the halls of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. His life-size statue also stands in Alton, his loving hometown, on the campus of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine. Robert has left behind an amazing legacy of being a gentle, respectful individual who overcame all odds to live life to the fullest. His stories still linger on today, even though most of the storytellers are now long gone!
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