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Measuring 8 ft 11 inches, Robert Pershing Wadlow, the tallest man in recorded history, surpassed his father by age 8

Alex A
 (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
(Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Many of us have wished to be an inch taller. A little more height, or a lot more for that matter, seems like an advantage.

However, if you happen to be or if you know a really tall person, you are acquainted with the disadvantages of the gift of height, such as finding clothes that actually fit you, being asked questions like “How’s the weather up there?” all the time, and having to sit in the back of the theater because “you are so tall you can see from anywhere.” and a lot of other situations that can make the tall person uncomfortable.

Historical records are full of individuals who grew beyond the human norm, with some of them even becoming a sort of celebrity thanks to their incredible height, but being recognized by Guinness World Records as the tallest human in history isn’t as joyful as one might assume.

This is the fascinating and sad story about the life of Robert Pershing Wadlow, nicknamed the “Giant of Illinois,” the tallest person in recorded human history.

 "Robert Wadlow (left) and Jack Grissom, playmates at Alton, IL, are both 10 years old. Robert is six feet, six inches tall and weights 211 pounds. Jack is four feet, two inches-about normal for a boy of his age."
Robert Wadlow (left) and Jack Grissom, playmates at Alton, IL, are both 10 years old. Robert is six feet, six inches tall and weighs 211 pounds. Jack is four feet, two inches, about normal for a boy of his age.

February 22, 1918, was a day of great significance for Harold Franklin Wadlow and his 21-year-old spouse, Addie Wadlow (Johnson). It was on this day that Addie gave birth to a healthy, normal sized baby boy, whom they named  Robert Pershing Wadlow. Nothing seemed unusual at first, but soon after birth, little Robert began to grow quite fast, and by the time of his first birthday, he stood at 3 feet, 3.5 inches and weighed 45 pounds.

As the years went by, Robert became taller and taller. At the time of his eighth birthday, he was already taller than his own father and his school had to design a much bigger desk for him. The boy just kept growing and growing and soon became taller than everyone he knew. By the age of 13, he stood at an incredible 7 feet, 4 inches, which made him the world’s tallest Boy Scout.

Wadlow didn’t suffer from the normal causes of Gigantism but from hyperplasia of his pituitary gland, which resulted in producing an unusually high level of the human growth hormone, more commonly known as HGH. This hormone spurs growth in children and adolescents, but the high levels of HGH in Wadlow’s case led to a constant increase in his height, which eventually led to serious health problems.

Wadlow loved playing guitar and photography, but as he kept growing, his hands grew too large to do either. However, that was not the only problem he faced. His incredible size soon brought more serious health issues. Wearing braces was a must for an individual of his size and the numbness in his legs soon become a constant companion.  However, he refused to use a wheelchair and wanted to stand on his own two feet as long as he lived.

Wadlow's shoe, size 37 AA(US, size).Photo Credit
Wadlow’s shoe, size 37 AA (US size). Author: Doug Coldwell – CC BY-SA 3.0

Being a shy, quiet, and mild-mannered young man led to him being known as the “Gentle Giant.”

Upon graduating from high school, Wadlow joined the Ringling Brother Circus and traveled across the United States, promoting the International Shoe Company that had provided him with his size 37AA footwear.

Wadlow's shoe compared to a size 12.Photo Credit
Wadlow’s shoe compared to a size 12. Doug Coldwell – CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1937, Wadlow reached 8 feet, 4 inches and became the tallest person in the world, surpassing the previous record holder John Rogan who was 8 feet tall.

Robert Wadlow compared to his father, Harold Franklin Wadlow, whose height was 1.82 m (5 ft 11 1⁄2 in)
Robert Wadlow compared to his father, Harold Franklin Wadlow, whose height was 5 ft 11 1⁄2 in

Despite the inconveniences of his disorder, Wadlow was a very active young man. He was a member of the Order of DeMolay, the Masonic-sponsored organization for young men, and became a Freemason.

 A statue of Robert Wadlow, the world's tallest man, inside Spiece Fieldhouse Date20 August 2011 Photo Credit
A statue of Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man, inside Spiece Fieldhouse. Date 20 August 2011. Author: KMOM14 – CC BY 3.0

In 1940, when Wadlow was only 22, he got a nasty infection from a faulty brace and despite the immediate surgery and blood transfusion, his health started to deteriorate quite rapidly, eventually resulting in his death.

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Eighteen days before dying, he was measured at 8 ft 11.1 inches, which indicated that he kept growing. His great physical strength, however, never let him down and he kept his spirit up until the last moment of his life. The Giant of Illinois was buried in a 1,000-pound casket, carried by eight assistants and a dozen pallbearers.