Robert Wadlow — The Tragically Short Life Of The World’s Tallest Man

Published January 31, 2018
Updated March 19, 2020

Robert Wadlow was the tallest man ever, and though his life was cut tragically short, it was full of excitement worthy of the "gentle giant."

The Tallest Man Lounges

Getty Images/New York Daily News ArchiveRobert Wadlow lounges while talking with a friend.

The tallest man ever was born healthy, happy, and seemingly normal. On February 22, 1918, Addie Wadlow gave birth to an 8.7-pound baby named Robert Pershing Wadlow in Alton, Illinois. Like most babies, he began to grow over the course of his first year of life. Unlike most babies, he grew exceptionally fast and exceptionally tall.

By 6 months, he weighed 30 pounds. On his first birthday, he was up to 45 pounds and 3 feet, 3.5 inches tall.

When he turned 8 years old, he had exceeded his father Harold’s height of 5 feet, 11 inches by 3 inches.

At 13, he became the world’s tallest Boy Scout at 7 feet, 4 inches.

By the time he graduated high school, he had landed in the record books as the tallest person in the world at 8 feet, 4 inches tall.

Diagnosis For The World’s Tallest Man

This documentary from 1975 takes a look into the life of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man ever.

Doctors eventually diagnosed young Robert with hyperplasia of the pituitary gland, a condition that caused rapid and excessive growth due to an abnormally high level of human growth hormones in the body. Even at the time of his death, his body was continuing to grow and had shown no signs of slowing down.

Despite his increasingly gargantuan size, Robert Wadlow’s parents tried to make his life as normal as possible.

To participate in elementary school, a special desk was made for him. As the oldest of his two brothers and two sisters (all of whom were of average height and weight), he was expected to play with his siblings and participate in the same activities they did.

Wadlow collected stamps and enjoyed photography. He also remained active in the Boy Scouts into his teenage years. He had even enrolled in the local Shurtleff College to pursue a career in law. He eventually joined the Order of DeMolay and became a Freemason.

Though he was a relatively healthy boy, he did have to deal with another major obstacle: Due to his extreme height, he suffered from a lack of feeling in his legs and feet. If he did feel anything, it was nothing more than a constant tingling.

Still, he preferred to walk on his own, never once using a wheelchair — even if it would have aided him greatly. He wouldn’t let his distinction of being the tallest person in the world slow him down.

The Tallest Person In The World Joins The Circus

Wadlow At The Circus

Getty Images/New York Daily News ArchiveRobert Wadlow comparing shoe sizes with the Ringling Bros’ Major Mite, a little person traveling with the circus.

In 1936, Robert Wadlow was noticed by the Ringling Brothers and their traveling circus. The Ringlings knew he would make an excellent addition to their show, particularly when he was showcased alongside the troupe of little people already employed by the circus.

Indeed, the tallest man in the world drew a huge crowd — from Madison Square Garden to Boston Garden and beyond — turning him into somewhat of a celebrity.

In 1938, Peters Shoe Company, made by the International Shoe Company, contacted Wadlow to offer him a job. They had noticed him on his travels with the Ringling Brothers and asked if he wouldn’t mind joining them on a promotional tour.

Wadlow agreed and became the face of the company, promoting the brand, and receiving all of his specially made, size 37AA shoes free of charge. The free shoes were a welcome bonus, especially since he would have been paying $100 a pair otherwise (that would be nearly $2,000 today!).

In order to travel the country, his father had to modify the family’s car. He removed the passenger seat so that Robert could sit in the back seat and stretch out his legs. They then set out on the road, visiting over 800 towns to promote the Missouri-based shoe company.

The Tallest Man Ever Was The Gentlest Of Giants

Robert Wadlow And Family

Paille/FlickrThe tallest man in the world stands alongside his family.

When he wasn’t traveling the world, selling shoes or participating in sideshows, the tallest man in the world enjoyed a quiet life. His friends and family remembered him as mild-mannered and polite, earning him the nickname “gentle giant.” Until his ever-growing limbs began to prevent it, Wadlow was often seen playing the guitar and working on his photography.

Though the life of the tallest man in the world was no doubt an exciting one, it was also a difficult one. Homes, public spaces, and general household items weren’t exactly equipped for a man of his height, and he often had to make concessions and adjustments to be able to perform simple tasks.

Furthermore, to walk properly, special braces had to be fitted to his legs. Though they ended up allowing him to stand upright, the braces were also his downfall.

An Inspiring Life Cut Short

A Table For The Tallest Man

Getty Images/New York Daily News Archive. Robert Wadlow eats dinner with his family at a specially raised table custom made for him.

Due to the lack of feeling in his legs, he didn’t notice that the braces were rubbing against his ankle. In 1940, while making an appearance at Michigan’s Manistee National Forest Festival, a blister formed that became infected, causing doctors to resort to a blood transfusion and emergency surgery.

Unfortunately, his great height also left him with a weakened immune system, and he eventually succumbed to the infection.

On July 15, 1940, Robert Wadlow died in his sleep. Just 18 days prior, he had been measured for the final time, clocking in at 8 feet, 11.1 inches. His body was laid to rest in his hometown of Alton, Illinois.

He was placed in a casket fit for the tallest man in the world. It reached a length of 10 feet, 9 inches, and weighed in at 1,000 pounds. It took a dozen men to carry it out of the funeral, supported by another eight assistants. Thousands of people came out to mourn him.

Leaving Behind A Large Legacy

Robert Wadlow Statue

Eric Bueneman/FlickrA life-size statue of Robert Wadlow stands in his hometown of Alton, Illinois.

Though he died at just 22 years of age, Robert Wadlow left behind a legacy as large as he was – literally. Erected in 1985, a life-size bronze statue of Wadlow stands in Alton, on the campus of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine.

Across the street, at the Alton Museum of History and Art, visitors can see photographs of Wadlow, as well as a few pairs of his shoes, his third-grade school desk, his graduation cap and gown, and his size-25 Masonic ring. (Wadlow also holds the record for the largest hands ever, measuring 12.75 inches from the wrist to the tip of his middle finger.)

Meanwhile, three other Wadlow statues have been placed in Guinness World Records Museums around North America. Several wax models of him reside in Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums, some of them lying in gigantic caskets, some of them towering over the awestruck crowd.

The few artifacts and statues are the only physical reminders of Wadlow. In order to preserve his image and discourage collectors from profiting off of his disability, Robert’s mother had nearly all of his belongings destroyed after his death.

Still, his inspirational story — of a young, kind man overcoming a unique condition to live his life to the fullest — remains. And so does his World Record as the tallest man ever.

After reading about Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in the world, check out the world’s tallest teenager and his 3D printed shoes. Then, check out Ekaterina Lisina, the woman with the world’s longest legs.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.