Robert Wadlow – The Sad Life of the Tallest Man Ever

Robert Wadlow Tallest Man Alive with Two Women

The tallest man to ever live was named Robert Wadlow. Born on February 12, 1918, in Alton, Illinois he lived until he was only 22 years old before passing away on July 15, 1940. Throughout history, people have always been fascinated with the extreme, bizarre, and unusual.

The Guinness Book of World Records was founded in 1955 to give people a look into the world of record-breaking extremes. One of the first people to ever be featured in the early Guinness books was Robert Wadlow. In this article, we explore the little-known true story of the tragic life and death of the tallest man to ever live.

The Early Life of the Tallest Man to Ever Live

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The Economics of Robert Wadlow by Arne Hendricks, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Robert Wadlow was born a normal, healthy-sized baby at 8 pounds and 5 ounces (3.8kg). No one suspected that he was different until he began to grow far more rapidly than most babies. As a one-year-old infant, he weighed almost 45 pounds and was over three feet tall. By elementary school, they were keeping meticulous records on his growth and medical condition.


The oldest of five siblings, Robert’s parents wanted him to have as normal of a life as possible. They enrolled him in school with other children his age. His school had to make special accommodations for his education because he was so different than the other children. Despite his physical differences, his upbringing was fairly normal for a young boy growing up in Illinois. He was expected to play and participate in activities with other children his age.

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Robert Wadlow (left) at ten years old with a friend the same age.

He had started kindergarten at a shocking height of 5’4″ and even as a young child had to wear clothes made for teenagers to account for his large size. By the next year, he was already 5’7″ and at eight years old he overtook his father who stood at 5’11” in height by reaching 6 ft tall. His school desks had to be modified with wooden blocks to keep him from hurting his back crouching over.

Robert even joined the Boy Scouts with other boys his age. He was pronounced the tallest Boy Scout in the world at 13 years old. He was a shocking 7’4″ tall at the time, and his Boy Scout uniform was custom-tailored for him. It required much more fabric to produce than the other boy’s uniforms. Almost everywhere he went, accommodations had to be made for his large size. He also had some health problems due to his condition, which worsened as he got older.

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Hollywood Comes to MO – Robert Wadlow and Wallace Beery, courtesy of the Missouri State Archives

Robert had several hobbies. He was a collector, who enjoyed stamp collecting. He also had an interest in photography and was usually happy to pose for pictures when asked. Despite his condition, he lived life to the fullest. He was a musician who enjoyed playing guitar.

As he got older, the size of his hands made it harder to do hobbies that he loved. When he graduated high school at 18 he was over 8 ft tall and the tallest man alive. He was a kind and well-liked boy who was known by his friends and family as a “gentle giant”.

He had graduated high school and begun to study to be a lawyer at Shurtleff College shortly after. An often unknown fact about Robert Wadlow is that he joined a Freemason Lodge, the Order of DeMolay, while in school to become a lawyer. Unfortunately, he never graduated.


Why Was Robert Wadlow So Tall?

It was not until Robert Wadlow was almost 12 years old did his family have an explanation for his abnormal size. Doctors determined that the cause of Robert’s rapid and non-stop growth was an overactive, enlarged pituitary gland in the brain which caused an imbalance of growth hormones. The pituitary gland controls the release of hormones into the body, including growth hormones. Another term for this is pituitary gland hyperplasia.

Brain surgery was not a well-developed science back then, and it was too risky to be an option. As a result, Robert Wadlow would never stop growing.

Pituitary gland image
Pituitary Gland by Life Science Databases(LSDB), licensed under CC BY-SA 2.1 JP

Robert Wadlow will most likely be the tallest man to ever live because modern medicine has discovered ways to treat pituitary hyperplasia. Hormone therapy, medications, and surgery are all used today to treat children born with pituitary gland hyperplasia so that nobody ever has to go through what Robert went through again.


Was Robert Wadlow Famous For Being the Tallest Man Alive?

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Storytelling Giants by John Henderson, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Locally Robert was known as the “The Alton Giant” after his hometown. The first Guinness Book of World Records was published in the 1950s after his passing, sharing the incredible story of the tallest man ever across the globe, but he was famous during his life as well. From an early age, many people took notice of Robert Wadlow’s unusual stature. Because of this, there are many photos today of Robert Wadlow to ensure that his legacy lives on as being the tallest man to ever live.

Wherever Robert went he drew in a crowd. The Ringling Brother’s circus noticed this and offered Robert a chance to tour with them. Unsurprisingly, Robert went on to bring many patrons to the circus to marvel at his height. They showcased him along with little people to make his height seem even grander. He reached celebrity status while working with the Ringling Brothers and went on to make many more appearances in his short life.

To keep up with his new celebrity status, Robert’s father had to alter their family car for him to fit in it for travel. Robert sat in the back seat with his legs outstretched into the passenger seat. He visited 41 states and over 800 towns to give appearances as a spokesperson for Peters Shoe Company.


Robert made money for his appearances, and Peters Shoe Company provided him with free, custom-made shoes in his size. He had a shoe size of 37AA which cost over $100 ($1000 today) per pair. Even though he had a deep love for his hometown of Alton, Robert also enjoyed traveling and seeing new places. He made friends wherever he went.

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Robert Wadlow shoe (size 25) compared to normal size 12. by Doug Coldwell, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Robert Wadlow is a local legend in his hometown of Alton, Illinois. In 2018 St. Louis Public Radio published a story celebrating his life on the 100th anniversary of his death. A statue of Robert stands on the campus of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine in his hometown of Alton. There is also a museum dedicated to artifacts from Robert’s life including his school desk, graduation gown, and even his Freemason ring which had to be made to order in the size-25. At almost 13 inches long, Robert Wadlow also holds the record for having the largest hands ever.

There are also statues of Robert in museums across the country such as Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Guinness Book of World Records. Guests of the museums can stand next to the statues of Robert to compare themselves in size. Sadly, most of Robert’s possessions were destroyed by his family after his death to prevent collectors from hawking his things off for money. His family wanted to preserve the memory of Robert Wadlow in their own way.


How Did Robert Wadlow Pass Away?

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Alton Giant by Chris Yunker, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Although he tried to stay in the best shape possible, he had constant health problems due to his condition. His incredibly long legs caused the most problems because he was unable to feel sensations in his feet, ankles, and legs. This caused him to overlook wounds and injuries on the lower extremities of his body. He also needed help getting around from a cane and leg braces. He preferred walking on his own instead of using a wheelchair as he wanted to remain independent and live as normal of a life as possible.

Because he had no feeling in his legs, he did not notice when his leg braces rubbed against his skin. Over time, blisters formed which then became infected. His condition also weakened his immune system, making him more susceptible to infections. At the time they did not have the modern medicine that we have today to fight infections, and this would ultimately be the cause of Robert’s death at the young age of 22 years old. Robert may have had a bright future ahead of him as a lawyer if he had survived.

He was measured for one last time in the weeks prior to his death at 8 ft and 11 inches tall. Because of his overactive pituitary gland, he never stopped growing until the day he died. He was at an event, Michigan’s Manistee National Forest Festival, when the first blister formed that would lead to his death.


When he began to show signs of fever they rushed him to a hospital, but surgery and blood transfusions were unsuccessful in saving his life. His family flew from Illinois to Michigan to be by his side in his final moments. Tragically, he had been looking forward to attending his grandparents’ golden anniversary party and his last words were, “The doctor says I won’t get home for the… celebration”.

At over 10 ft long and 1,000 pounds, his casket had to be carried by over 18 strong men at his funeral. He loved his hometown and was buried there, close to his family home. His funeral was a huge event, with thousands of mourners in attendance from all over. During his life, he touched many people with how resilient and positive an outlook he maintained despite his medical condition. After his death, he continues to inspire.