The Story of the Giant Gentleman: The Tallest Person Who Ever Lived

When it comes to being uniquely tall, there are quite a few of us who have beaten or continue to beat all standards. But no one has yet beaten the record of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man who ever lived on the planet. In 1940, he was the tallest man in the world to be scientifically measured.

So, who was Robert Wadlow? To understand Robert and his story, let’s go back 100 years and take a journey through the life of the “Giant Gentleman” in Alton.

Robert Wadlow holds the undefeated record for being the tallest man who has ever lived, which has been confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records.

The Story of the Giant Gentleman: The Tallest Person Who Ever Lived
Image credit: Paille/flickr

Robert Wadlow was born in Alton, Illinois, in 1918. His explosive growth began early in his life. When he was only six months old, he weighed 30 pounds, and at 18 months, he was already 67 pounds. He continued to grow at an alarming rate, and when he was five years old and went to school for the first time, he was already taller than all his classmates at 5 feet 1 inch. He became taller than his father at the age of 8, and by the time he was 16, Robert had already crossed 8 feet.

miss out! This is a mind-boggling hike for a teenager. He had a special desk set up for him at school to accommodate his legs. Robert was like any other teenage boy who loved baseball, basketball and soccer. He was described by teachers and friends as a smiling, polite, soft-spoken, ambitious boy who rarely got angry.

But why was he taller than everyone else? The doctors wanted to know why. Robert was still growing rapidly when he went to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis at the age of twelve. There, doctors examined him and found out the cause of his astronomical growth.

Doctors diagnosed Robert with an enlarged pituitary gland, which caused a growth spurt.

The Story of the Giant Gentleman: The Tallest Person Who Ever Lived
He was 10 years old in this photo. Image credit: wikimedia

The pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, secretes hormones into the bloodstream. Robert’s pituitary gland was overactive, resulting in an abnormally high level of human growth hormone, or growth hormone, causing him to constantly grow in height. If that were the case today, doctors would likely be able to stop the growth with surgery or medication. But in those days it was a very risky operation, and doctors advised against it. They also concluded that Robert was very comfortable with his height, and did him no physical or mental harm. In fact, his IQ was well above average. Therefore, Robert continued to live his life as normally as possible while continuing to grow at an abnormal rate.

Robert’s belongings had to be specially made to help him go about his daily routine.

The Story of the Giant Gentleman: The Tallest Person Who Ever Lived
Robert Wadlow With his Father. Image credit: icollector.com via Wiki

Robert was like “Gulliver” on Earth. Everything around him was made for people younger than him. Therefore, most of his items should have been made specifically to help him. His school desk was specially designed to accommodate his legs. His chairs were built according to his size, and many beds had to be pushed together to fit him. In fact, his father custom-made their car by removing the front passenger seat so Robert could stretch his legs. As the tallest Boy Scout ever, he also had custom-designed tents, uniforms, and sleeping bags.

When Robert died, he held the record for being the tallest person who ever lived. After his death, most of his belongings were burned by Robert’s mother so that no collector or person could use them for profit, but some items can still be seen at the Alton Museum of History and Art.

Robert was marketed as “Alton’s Giant” in the Ringling Brothers touring circus and became a worldwide sensation.

The Story of the Giant Gentleman: The Tallest Person Who Ever Lived
Robert Wadlow in public. Image credit: Millercountymuseum.org

It was featured as “The Illinois Giant” and became so popular that it took center stage instead of sideshows. But Robert was not interested in the glowing and colorful life of the circus. He signed the contract under the strict terms that he would always wear suits, stay in a hotel with his father, and not wear circus costume or tall hats and tails to highlight his personality. In fact, it was the circus that gave him the nickname “Gentleman” due to his kind and polite nature. As the tallest person in the world, Robert quickly became a nationwide star as he continued to travel every year, gathering a huge crowd wherever he went. His time in the circus was short-lived, however, as performing and showcasing himself was not something he enjoyed.

Robert has traveled with the Peters Shoe Company as a spokesperson on their promotional tours.

The Story of the Giant Gentleman: The Tallest Person Who Ever Lived
Wadlow shoe compared with 12 size shoe. Image credit: Doug Coldwell/Wik

By this time, Robert had a shoe size of 37.5, which earned him the nickname “The Biggest Foot Ever”, as well as being the tallest person in the world. The shoe company promised to provide him with free shoes as long as he worked with them. This was an advantage for Robert because his huge shoes were very expensive to buy. Robert traveled with the Peters Shoe Company in St. Louis in the mid-1930s. With his father, he has traveled to more than 800 cities covering 41 states to promote the brand. He quickly became a household name.

His travels and other advertising stints took him across the country, but Robert always looked forward to returning to Alton to be with his family. He had a loving and supportive family, and they took great measures to ensure he continued to live as normally as possible. His life there was regular, and he was never the only center of attention.

Robert became seriously ill in 1940 from an infection and sadly passed away at the age of 22.

The Story of the Giant Gentleman: The Tallest Person Who Ever Lived
Robert Wadlow with Andre the Giant. Image credit: reddit.com

By 1940, Robert found it difficult to walk but refused to use a wheelchair. Doctors installed permanent iron braces to support his gigantic feet.

The Story of the Giant Gentleman: The Tallest Person Who Ever Lived
Shaq standing next Robert Wadlow Replica. Image credit: Reddit

In 1940, he was on a promotional tour for the Peters Shoe Company. During a professional appearance at the Manistee National Forest Festival, he complained of pain in his leg. At the time, he had been wearing a metal brace to support his knees and ankles for a while. But he couldn’t feel his legs because of his size. Therefore, Robert did not notice that the abutment was defective and continued to rub against his skin until it was too late. This resulted in a serious injury to him that was fatal. His hotel room becomes a makeshift hospital. But the infection spread too far, and despite blood transfusions, Robert died early and tragically at the age of 22, on July 15, 1940.

When last measured, 18 days before his death, Robert’s height was 8 feet 11.1 inches.

The Story of the Giant Gentleman: The Tallest Person Who Ever Lived
Robert Pershing Wadlow Statue. Image credit: Eric Bueneman/Flickr

Robert’s height was 8 feet 11.1 inches and weight of 439 lbs on June 27, 1940. He was officially and indisputably the tallest man in the world. After his death, he was buried in his beloved hometown of Alton, Illinois, at Oakwood Cemetery, where he still resides with his family. His custom-made coffin was 10 feet long, 9 inches long, 32 inches wide, and weighed 1,000 pounds. It took 12 men and eight assistants to carry his coffin during the procession. There were over 40,000 people who came to pay their respects at his funeral. Obviously, the “gentle giant” has won the hearts of many.

Robert Wadlow will likely always remain the tallest person who ever lived due to advances in science and medicine. Today, this exponential growth is usually slowed or stopped entirely by surgery or medicine. Thus, we can only wonder that perhaps if he had been born later, he would not have died at such a young age.

Robert’s life continues to inspire today as he made the most of his privileged status.

Many years later, Robert is still the tallest person who ever lived, but he also holds a special place in the hearts of those who remember him for being who he was rather than what he was. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Robert was the perfect example of this ideal. He was positive and always relaxed in his physical stature. He was smartly dressed and refused to be treated as a “freak”.

To the people of Alton or those who knew him, Robert was an ordinary boy like everyone else, and he was really tall. They didn’t see him as weird. It was always strangers who were curious. Sometimes he had to grapple with insensitive questions or poke his leg to check if it was real. But Robert was always kind and rarely angry. He was beloved by everyone who knew him.

His statues still stand in the Museum of the Guinness Book of Records and the halls of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. His life-size statue also stands in Alton, his beloved hometown, on the campus of Southern Illinois University College of Dental Medicine. Robert has left behind an amazing legacy of being a kind and respectful individual who overcame all odds to live life to the fullest. His stories still resonate today, though most of the storytellers are now gone!


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