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Robert Wadlow: The tallest man in history seen through stunning photographs, 1918-1940_Ha

Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in the world, was born in Alton, Illinois, on February 22, 1918, to Harold Franklin and Addie May Wadlow, and was the oldest of five children.

Nobody could’ve anticipated that the seemingly normal baby boy will grow up to be the world’s tallest man, often nicknamed Alton Giant or the Giant of Illinois.

Wadlow with his mother and brother. 1935.

When Robert turned one, he was already 3 ft 5 in (1.05 m) tall and weighed 45 pounds. By the age of 5, he had to wear clothes intended for a 17-year old, as he reached the height of 5 ft 4 in (1.63 m).

Three years later, the soon-to-be tallest man in the world outgrew and outweighed his own father as he towered at a height of 6 ft 2 in (1.87 m) and weighed 200 pounds (90 kg).

By the time of his graduation from Alton High School in 1936, he was 8 ft 4 in (2.54 m). Still, he wasn’t done growing and ultimately reached the height of 8 ft 11 in (2.72 m) at his death at age 22.

Wadlow with his father.

But why did Robert Wadlow grow up to be so tall?
Doctors eventually diagnosed him 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 by the time of his death, there was no indication that his growth had ended.

But despite his enormous height, his parents and family tried to make his life as normal as possible. Wadlow was a quiet and mild-mannered young man, which led to him being called a “gentle giant.”

He enjoyed photography and playing guitar until his hands grew too large to do either. Schools made special desks for him, adding wooden blocks to the bottom so he wouldn’t have to hunch over in class.

Growing up he required leg braces when walking and had little feeling in his legs and feet. However, he never used a wheelchair.


Wadlow became a celebrity after his 1936 U.S. tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus, appearing at Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden in the center ring (never in the sideshow). During his appearances, he dressed in his everyday clothes and refused the circus’s request that he wear a top hat and tails.

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.

In 1938, he began a promotional tour with the International Shoe Company, which provided him shoes free of charge, again only in his everyday street clothes. Wadlow saw himself as working in advertising, not exhibiting as a freak. He possessed great physical strength until the last few days of his life.

One year before his death, Wadlow passed John Rogan as the tallest person ever. On June 27, 1940 (18 days before his death), he was measured by doctors at 8 ft 11.1 in (2.72 m).

On July 4, 1940, during a professional appearance at the Manistee National Forest Festival, a faulty brace irritated his ankle, leading to infection. He was treated with a blood transfusion and surgery, but his condition worsened due to an autoimmune disorder; he died in his sleep on July 15.

His coffin measured 10 ft 9 in (3.28 m) long by 2 ft 8 in (0.81 m) wide by 2 ft 6 in (0.76 m) deep, weighed over 1,000 lb (450 kg), and was carried by twelve pallbearers and eight assistants.

A life-size statue of Wadlow was erected opposite the Alton Museum of History and Art in 1986. Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens wrote and released a song titled “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders” in reference to Wadlow, on his 2005 concept album Illinois concerning historical figures and events of the state.

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.

Robert Wadlow and his father.


A young Robert Wadlow.

The Wadlows at dinner.

Wadlow at age 10.

Wadlow at age 17 with his brothers.


Wadlow travels aboard the Queen Mary. 1937.

Wadlow is fitted for a jacket. 1939.

“Major Mite” of the Ringling Brothers Circus compares hand sizes with Wadlow. 1937.

“Major Mite” compares his size 4 shoes with Wadlow’s size 36. 1937.

In a nod to Gulliver’s Travels, performers from Ringling Brother’s Circus tie up Wadlow as a means of getting acquainted. 1937.


Wadlow visits an orange grove in Miami, Florida. 1940.

Wadlow stoops for a drink during a visit to the Daily News offices in New York. 1937.

Wadlow chats with a friend after appearing at a charity event in Omaha, Nebraska. 1937.

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


Robert greets Movie star Mary Pickford at the St. Louis airport.

A 12-year-old Robert Wadlow with boxing legend, Primo Carnera. Primo was 6’9″ and Robert was 7’2″.

Robert with his family in 1935.

Robert Wadlow with his family.

Robert Wadlow posing with the “Sons of the Pioneers” at the Texas Centennial, 1936 .

Wadlow’s shoe (US size 37 AA; UK size 36 or approximately European size 75) compared to a US size 12.

A life-size statue of Robert Wadlow stands in his hometown of Alton, Illinois. (Photo by Eric Bueneman).

(Photo credit: Mashable / Getty Images / Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress)

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