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

Published January 31, 2018
Updated September 15, 2019
Published January 31, 2018
Updated September 15, 2019

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."

Robert Wadlow

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

On February 22, 1918, Addie Wadlow gave birth to a healthy, 8.7-pound baby named Robert Pershing Wadlow. 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 his first birthday, he was 45 pounds, and 3 feet, 3.5 inches tall.

By his eighth birthday, he had exceeded his father’s height of 5 feet, 11 inches.

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

By the time he graduated high school, he was 8 feet, 4 inches tall.

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. For him to participate in elementary school, a special desk was made for him. As the oldest of his four brothers and sisters, he was expected to play with his siblings and participate in the same activities they did.

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. However, though it would have aided him greatly, he never once used a wheelchair, preferring to walk on his own.

Robert Wadlow With A Little Person

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 Ringling’s 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. And, indeed, the tallest man in the world drew a huge crowd, turning him into somewhat of a celebrity.

In 1938, the International Shoe Company contacted him, offering him a job. They had noticed him on his travels with the Ringling Brothers and asked if he wouldn’t mind joining him 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.

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 practicing photography.

Though the life of the gentle giant was no doubt an exciting one, it was no doubt 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.

World's Tallest Man Ever

Getty Images/New York Daily News Archive. Robert Wadlow eating dinner with his family at a special raised table 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, 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. Eighteen 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 a casket fit for the tallest man in the world, reaching a length of 10 feet, 9 inches, and weighing 1,000 pounds. It took twelve men to carry it out of the funeral, supported by eight assistants.

Though he died at just 22 years of age, Robert Wadlow left behind a legacy as large as he was – literally. A life-size bronze statue of Wadlow stands in his hometown of Alton, Illinois, while three others stand in Guinness 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.

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.