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The Tallest Man in Hisotry: Robert Wadlow

Robert Pershing Wadlow

Robert Wadlow is the tallest man and the tallest person in history for whom there is irrefutable evidence. He reached 8 ft 11.1 in (272 cm) in height and weighed 490 pounds (220 kg) at his death. His great size and his continued growth in adulthood was due to hypertrophy of his pituitary gland which results in an abnormally high level of human growth hormone. Modern medicine has developed therapies to treat this condition. He is presumed to have been still growing, even at the time of his death.

His Life

Robert was the first born of Addie and Harold Wadlow. Later the Wadlow family grew with the addition of two sisters, Helen and Betty, and two brothers, Eugene and Harold Jr. All of his family members were of normal height and weight. He is often known as the "Alton Giant" because of his Alton, Illinois hometown, or the "Gentile Giant" due to his measured deportment and affection toward his mother.

Robert Wadlow was born at a normal 8lb 6oz on February 22, 1918. But, he quickly began to draw attention. He weighed 30 lbs at 6 moths and 62 lbs at 18 months.

During elementary school, they had to make a special desk for him because of his size. Wadlow was also the world's tallest Boy Scout. In 1936, after graduating from Alton High School, he enrolled in Shurtleff College with the intention of studying law. By the time he had graduated from college, he was 8 ft 3 in (2.51 m).

Robert Pershing Wadlow

Robert Wadlow's size began to take its toll as he aged: he required leg braces to walk, and had little feeling in his legs and feet. The combination of diminished feeling, inability to recognize irritations, with the required leg braces resulted in substantial blisters. Despite these encounters, Robert Wadlow was never confined to a wheelchair. Though, he did end up contracting an infection in one of those blisters that eventually lead to his death, days later.

In his time, Robert Wadlow was among the most popular of American celebrities; he obviously was well-known due to his 1936 U.S. tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus. He continued participating in various tours and public appearances.

Wadlow was an American celebrity; he was well-known owing to his 1936 U.S. tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus and his 1938 promotional tour with the INTERCO. He continued participating in tours and public appearances, though only in his normal street clothes. His shoes were provided to him free of charge by a shoe company for which he did promotional work and appearances. Examples still exist in several locations throughout the US, including Snyder's Shoe Store of Ludington and Manistee, Michigan, and the Alton Museum of History and Art.

Wadlow was a Freemason. In 1939, he petitioned Franklin Lodge #25 in Alton, Illinois, and by late November of that year was raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Illinois A.F & A.M. Wadlow's Freemason ring was the largest ever made. One year before his death, he passed John Rogan as the tallest person ever. On June 27, 1940 (eighteen days before his death), he was measured at 8 ft 11.1 in (2.72 m) by doctors C. M. Charles and Cyril MacBryde of Washington University in St. Louis.

Robert Pershing Wadlow
His Death

On July 4, 1940, while making a professional appearance at the National Forest Festival, a faulty brace irritated his ankle, causing a blister and subsequent infection. Doctors treated him with a blood transfusion and emergency surgery. But, his condition worsen; and on July 15, 1940, he died in his sleep. He was 22.

An estimated 40,000 people attended Robert Wadlow's funeral on July 19. He was buried in a half-ton coffin that required 12 pallbearers to carry, which was interred within a vault of solid concrete. It was believed that Robert Wadlow's family were concerned for the sanctity of his body after his death, and went to these lengths of security to ensure it would never be disturbed or stolen.


There are two life size statues of Robert Wadlow. In 1985, a life-size bronze statue by Ned Giberson was erected at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Dental Medicine. Another statue of Wadlow stands on College Avenue in Alton, opposite the Alton Museum of History and Art. The statue was erected in 1986 in honor of the hometown native. He is also featured in film and with a wax replica in the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! museum in Saint Augustine, Florida, Atlantic City, New Jersey, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Gold Coast, Queensland and Guadalajara, Mexico. A life-sized statue was part of the exhibits at the Guinness Hall of World Records in the Empire State Building in New York City. A group of six life-size models, made before his death by artist James Butler, exist, and are shipped and displayed in replica caskets.

The 1998 song "The Giant of Illinois," by The Handsome Family (and later covered by Andrew Bird) honors Wadlow. In 2005 Sufjan Stevens recorded "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders" about Wadlow for the Illinois album. A picture of Wadlow with his family is featured on the back cover of the VHS version of the Talking Heads music video compilation, Storytelling Giant.