top of page

Robert Wadlow - The Tallest Man

Being tall is both a blessing and a curse. From being constantly reminded of the fact by all the short people around you, to constantly having to assist in the reaching of various objects - it can be a mixed experience.

One of the glaring downsides of being tall in our propensity for chronic pain. As it turns out, the human body is very poorly designed. Spines and joints just aren't made for taking the kind of load that being big brings.

Enter Robert Wadlow, a man so tall that it killed him. He holds the record of being the tallest human ever recorded. Among a sea of tall people he would stand out as a giant. This is the story of the tragically short life of a true titan of tallness.

AI recreation of a famous photo of Robert Wadlow
Robert Wadlow: Absolute Unit

From Normal Baby to Alton Giant

Harold and Addie Wadlow were not tall people. They were a recently married couple from Alton, Illinois, USA. Addie fell pregnant in 1917 during the tail end of the Great War.

She went into labor on 22 February 1918. Hours later, a perfectly ordinary baby boy entered the world. Robert Pershing Wadlow weighed in at 8.7 pounds (3.9 kg). The doctors gave him a clean bill of health, and he was sent home to begin Mr and Ms Wadlow's journey into parenthood.

Being new to the parenthood thing, the Wadlow's were surprised at how quickly he grew. After 6 months, little Robert weighed 30 pounds (13.6 kg). Compared to the average of 17 pounds at 6 months, he seems like an overachiever.

Robert continued gaining mass and size throughout his childhood. He was over 5 feet (1.5 m) tall at age five. By the time he was 8 years old, he was taller than his father. His primary school had to get a desk custom-built to fit him.

In 1930, doctors diagnosed Robert with hyperplasia of the pituitary gland. This caused his young body to be flooded with human growth hormone. Normal youths stop producing growth hormone at some point, not Robert. His growth would theoretically never end.

He was recognized as the tallest boy scout in the world by the age of 13. This title is a little less impressive when you remember that most countries do not have a boy scout association. Either way, he was taller than most adult men at 7.4 feet (2.2 m) tall. He became known as the Alton Giant.

Four years before his tragic end, Robert graduated from high school at 8.4 feet (2.5 m) tall. Robert Pershing Wadlow did not stop growing until the day he died. He measured an impressive 8.11 feet tall when his body finally gave in to gravity's merciless pull.

The human body wasn't meant to reach such lofty heights. Robert had no feeling in his lower extremities, as his nervous system simply gave up on reaching so low. This meant that he didn't notice cuts, abrasions, and blisters unless he went questing for them. He had to wear leg braces to stop his knees from collapsing, and walked with a cane.

Robert tried his hand at studying law, but dropped out due to his health. He did join the Freemasons, which isn't suspicious at all. Jokes aside, the man became quite famous.

He toured the country as a sideshow. Everywhere he traveled, the public would flock to see the Alton Giant. His fame grew. Soon he was rubbing shoulders with society's elites. The metaphor being somewhat inaccurate as his shoulders were far beyond the reach of most standard humans.

Wadlow was hired as the mascot for the Peters Shoe Company. They provided him with free shoes. His custom fit was a size 37AA, and each pair cost roughly $100 to make ($2,232 in today's money).

Robert's father got in on the action as well. He acted as his son's chauffeur. They had to modify their family car so that young Robert could fit. Together, father and son visited over 800 towns in their travels together.

The Difficulties of Being Big

Most people of above average height know the pain of living in a world that wasn't designed for you. Sure, you can reach the top shelf, but you are also prone to bumping your head into doorframes. There are a surprising number of architectural decisions that are openly hostile to the biggest among us. Not to mention the incredible pain that comes from rapid growth during puberty. Many tall people have spent an afternoon curled up on their bedroom floor in unspeakable agony.

Now imagine you are as tall as most ceilings. Robert had to live his life bent over. Leaning over on precarious legs that struggled beneath his immense weight. Like most tall people, he must have developed quite the tough scalp. He also developed the bane of tall folk everywhere, spinal issues.

The human spine is an incredibly suboptimal piece of machinery for what it does. Knees tend to buckle, and ankles roll. Most tall people can offset this steady decline with exercise. Robert Wadlow could not.

The Alton Giant's legs had begun giving up beneath his weight while he was still a teen. Limbs just aren't supposed to grow at the rate that his did. In order to stand upright, Robert wore metal leg braces.

His life on the road meant that he spent a lot of time seated, followed by long periods of standing. The leg braces would shift. Due to the limitations of his nervous system, he had no pain receptors at the bottom of his legs. The braces would chafe, cut, and scrape his ankles.

During an appearance at the Manistee National Forest Festival in Michigan, 1940, a blister formed on his leg. The braces didn't fit well, likely due to his continued growth.

Robert failed to notice the blister soon enough. Infection set in. Soon, Robert was fighting for his life against a dangerously high fever.

His doctors gave him a blood transfusion, and performed emergency surgery to try to save the Alton Giant. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain. He passed away on 15 July 1940. His last words were expressing regret about not being able to attend his parents' golden anniversary party.

Robert Wadlow was 22 years old, and 8.11 (2.47 m) feet tall. 18 pallbearers were required to carry his 1000 pound (453 kg) casket.