Inside The Tragically Short Life Of Robert Wadlow, The Tallest Person Ever

Published March 11, 2022
Updated June 12, 2024

At 8 feet, 11 inches tall, Robert Pershing Wadlow was the tallest man in the world. But sadly, this "gentle giant" didn't live long.

The tallest man in the world was born happy, healthy, and seemingly normal in size. On February 22, 1918, Addie Wadlow gave birth to an 8.7-pound baby named Robert Pershing Wadlow in Alton, Illinois.

Like most babies, Robert Wadlow began to grow over the course of his first year of life. But unlike most babies, he grew exceptionally fast.

By the time he was 6 months old, he already weighed 30 pounds. (The average baby boy weighs about half as much.) On his first birthday, Robert Pershing Wadlow weighed in at 45 pounds and measured 3 feet, 3.5 inches tall.

When Wadlow turned 5 years old, he was 5 feet, 4 inches tall and wearing clothes that were made for teenagers. And by the time his eighth birthday rolled around, he was already taller than his father (who was 5 feet, 11 inches). Standing about 6 feet tall when he was just a child, Wadlow soon began to tower over most adults.

Robert Wadlow

Getty Images/New York Daily News ArchiveAt 8’11”, Robert Wadlow was the tallest man ever — though he had not yet reached his full height in this photo that was taken in 1937.

At age 13, he became the world’s tallest Boy Scout at 7 feet, 4 inches. Unsurprisingly, he had to have a special uniform made for him, as the traditional sizes certainly wouldn’t fit.

When Wadlow graduated high school, he measured 8 feet, 4 inches tall. But startlingly, he still wasn’t done growing — and would go on to ultimately reach a height of 8 feet, 11 inches. And even at the time of his death, his body was continuing to grow and showed no signs of slowing down.

But what made him so tall in the first place? Why wouldn’t he stop growing? And why did the tallest man in history end up dying so young?

Why Was Robert Wadlow So Tall?

Tallest Man Ever

Paille/FlickrThe tallest man in the world stands alongside his family, who are all of average height and weight.

Doctors eventually diagnosed Robert Wadlow 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. His family first learned about this condition when Wadlow was 12 years old.

If Wadlow had been born today, he probably wouldn’t have become so tall — as we now have advanced surgeries and medicines that can help halt the growth. But at the time, surgeons were terrified to operate on Wadlow — since they did not feel confident enough that they could help him.

And so Wadlow was left to grow. But despite his ever-increasing size, his parents tried to make his life as normal as possible.

A PBS special on Robert Wadlow from 2018, the centennial anniversary of his birth.

Schools made special desks for him, adding wooden blocks to the bottom so he wouldn’t have to hunch over in class. And since Wadlow was the oldest of his two brothers and two sisters (who were all of average height and weight), he was expected to play with his siblings and participate in many of the same activities they did.

For fun, Wadlow collected stamps and enjoyed photography. During his early teenage years, he was active in the Boy Scouts. After high school, he enrolled in Shurtleff College to pursue a career in law — though it didn’t pan out. Robert Wadlow eventually joined the Order of DeMolay and became a Freemason.

Though he was relatively healthy in his younger years, he soon began to encounter some health issues. Due to his extreme height, he suffered from a lack of feeling in his legs and feet. This often meant that he wouldn’t notice issues like blisters or infections unless he was looking for them.

Eventually, he would also require leg braces and a cane to get around.

Still, he preferred to walk on his own, never once using a wheelchair — even if it would have aided him greatly.

Robert Wadlow Becomes A Celebrity

Tallest Person In History

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

In 1936, 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 little people who were already employed by the circus. To their delight, he agreed to tour with them.

Unsurprisingly, the tallest man in the world drew a huge crowd wherever he went during these circus shows. Before long, he became a celebrity — not to mention a hometown hero of Alton.

Wadlow also became an ambassador for Peters Shoe Company. Making even more public appearances, he ultimately visited more than 800 towns in 41 states. Not only did he become the face of the shoe company, he also began receiving specially made size 37AA shoes free of charge.

The free goods were certainly a welcome bonus, since his shoes often cost about $100 per pair (which was quite expensive back then).

Robert Wadlow With Actresses

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesRobert Wadlow poses with actresses Maureen O’Sullivan and Ann Morris in 1938.

In order for Wadlow to travel the country, his father had to modify the family’s car. He removed the front passenger seat so that his son could sit in the back seat and stretch out his legs. Though Wadlow loved his hometown, he was always excited about the opportunity to see other places.

When he wasn’t promoting shoes or participating in sideshows, the tallest man in the world enjoyed a relatively quiet life.

His friends and family remembered him as mild-mannered and polite, earning him the nickname “gentle giant.” Wadlow was often seen playing the guitar and working on his photography — until his ever-growing hands began to get in the way.

Though being one of the tallest people ever was exciting, it was also quite difficult. Homes, public spaces, and general household items weren’t exactly made for a man of his size, and he often had to make concessions and adjustments to be able to perform simple tasks.

Furthermore, he had to wear leg braces in order to walk properly. Though these braces certainly helped him to stand upright, they also played a role in his downfall.

An Inspiring Life Cut Short

A rare radio interview with Robert Wadlow from 1937.

Due to the lack of feeling in his legs, Robert Wadlow had trouble noticing when an ill-fitting brace was rubbing up against his ankle. And in 1940, that’s exactly what happened.

While Wadlow was making an appearance at Michigan’s Manistee National Forest Festival, he didn’t realize that a blister had formed on his leg. The blister was so irritated that it soon became infected, and Wadlow ran a high fever. When his doctors realized what happened, they quickly rushed to his aid — resorting to a blood transfusion and an emergency surgery.

Unfortunately, they failed to save Wadlow’s life. His jaw-dropping height had apparently left him with a weakened immune system, and he eventually succumbed to the infection. His last words were, “The doctor says I won’t get home for the… celebration,” referring to the golden anniversary party being held for his grandparents.

On July 15, 1940, Robert Wadlow died at age 22. Just a couple weeks 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 beloved hometown of Alton, Illinois.

He was placed in a casket fit for the tallest man in the world. It measured over 10 feet long and weighed about 1,000 pounds with him inside. It took 18 pallbearers to carry this casket in and out of the funeral. (Usually, only six pallbearers are needed.) Thousands of people showed up to mourn him.

The Larger-Than-Life Legacy Of The Tallest Person Ever

Robert Wadlow Statue

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

Even though he died at a young age, Robert Wadlow left behind a legacy as large as he was — literally. Ever since 1985, a life-size bronze statue of Wadlow has stood proudly in Alton, on the campus of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine.

And 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, other Wadlow statues have been placed in Guinness World Records Museums and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums around the country. These models often include a large measuring stick, so visitors can marvel at how tall Wadlow once stood — and see how they measure up.

However, only a few artifacts remain as physical reminders of Wadlow. Shortly after he died, his mother had nearly all of his personal belongings destroyed — to preserve his image and to discourage any potential collectors from profiting off of his condition.

But his inspirational story remains. And of course, the stunning photos of him remain as well. To this day, no one has ever reached Robert Wadlow’s height. And at this point, it seems unlikely that anyone ever will.

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

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Serena, Katie. "Inside The Tragically Short Life Of Robert Wadlow, The Tallest Person Ever.", March 11, 2022, Accessed June 19, 2024.