At 8'11," Robert Wadlow Was the World's Tallest Man

By: Alia Hoyt  | 

Robert Wadlow
The world's tallest man, Robert Wadlow, 19, chats with a friend after a charity event, Omaha, Nebraska, 1937. He was 8 feet, 7 inches tall at the time. Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Most boys stop growing around age 16, give or take. But Robert Wadlow, the tallest person in history, kept going until the day he died. By that time, he had reached the astounding height of 8 feet, 11.1 inches (2.7 meters tall) tall, as well as a bodyweight of 439 pounds (199 kilograms). This "gentle giant" has held the title of "Tallest Man Ever" with Guinness World Records since the first such book was released in 1955.

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Birth and Early Life

Born to average-sized parents in 1918, Wadlow weighed in at a normal 8.7 pounds (3.9 kilograms) at birth. But that changed pretty quickly, however. At 6 months old, he weighed 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) then 62 pounds (28 kilograms) by age 18 months. By 8, he was 6 feet, 2 inches (1.8 meters) tall and 195 pounds (88 kilograms). His two brothers and two sisters were all average in both height and weight.

In the small town of Alton, Illinois, Wadlow benefited from a fiercely protective community. "Even though he was adult size by kindergarten, his family and the community tried to give him as normal of a childhood as possible," says Jennifer Phillips, author of "Robert Wadlow: The Unique Life of the Boy Who Became the World's Tallest Man" in an email interview. "He enjoyed all of the activities other kids his age were enjoying. He participated in school plays, joined the Scouts, and appears to have been a regular kid in this respect."

Eventually, word of Wadlow's impressive stature spread, and he started to be sensationalized by the media. "The scrutiny from elsewhere started when he was 9 and that definitely impacted his childhood," Phillips says. "But his family and the immediate community were protective with a goal of letting him be a regular child as much as possible."

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How Did He Get So Tall?

Wadlow is unlikely to have his Guinness Record taken away anytime soon. This is because the medical issue that caused him to get so tall is now fairly treatable. "He underwent several medical evaluations and it was determined that Robert's pituitary gland was producing too much growth hormone," Phillips explains. "There was a surgery option, but he and his family ruled it out as too risky. They didn't have other treatments, so he focused on making the best of the situation."

Known as acromegaly, the hormonal disorder that results in gigantism is exceedingly rare, only occurring in 50 to 70 people per million. Some people dealing with gigantism make a career out of it, including professional wrestler and actor Andre the Giant and actor Carel Struycken (Lurch from "The Addams Family" movies.) Indeed, even Wadlow earned income thanks to his gigantism, traveling around the country as a goodwill ambassador for International Shoe Company, which provided him with free shoes to fit his size 37AA feet. Such footwear had to be specially made and retailed for $100 per pair at the time. That's equivalent to $1,600 today! He also toured for a time with Ringling Bros. Circus.

Although acromegaly can be treated today, it requires a team of specialists to achieve just the right balance for each individual case, typically a combination of medications, surgery and radiation therapy. Ideally, the growth hormone levels are normalized, and the size of any pituitary adenoma is reduced to return the gland to normal function. Far from perfect, these treatments are far better than anything Wadlow had at the time.

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Challenges of Gigantism

Despite living in a supportive community, Wadlow's gigantism came with a huge set of physical and emotional challenges. "His size affected his everyday comfort and ability to navigate a physical world not made for him as he kept growing," says Phillips. "As he outgrew regular-sized adult clothes and furniture, custom items had to be crafted." Notably, his father had to customize the family car by taking out the front passenger seat, so that Wadlow could sit in the back seat and have leg room. (Famously, Andre the Giant could not fit into airplane bathrooms, and instead had to urinate into a bucket when on flights.)

Robert Wadlow and brothers
Wadlow, 18, measuring 8 feet 5 3/4 inches, stands beside his brothers Eugene, 14, and Harold, 3, at their home in Alton, Illinois.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Wadlow's disease also got in the way of his professional aspirations. "As a young adult, he went to a local college for a while with a goal of becoming a lawyer," Phillips says. "But his size proved too challenging as he tried to navigate the campus and classrooms."

Although he handled most of the challenges in stride, "I did find material indicating an example of things he found distressing were when people who came to see him at visits around the country poked his legs to see if they were real (thinking he might be on stilts)," Phillips notes.

These inconveniences paled compared to the physical toll of the disorder. He required 8,000 calories per day, as well as leg braces and a walking stick to support him. His body had a terrible time keeping up. "It affected his health toward the end of his life as his systems struggled to support his size," Phillips says. He had difficulty feeling his extremities, particularly his feet.

In fact, it was a badly fitted ankle brace that ultimately caused his death at age 22 in 1940. "His size compromised his ability to heal from injuries or illnesses," Phillips says. "An ankle brace he wore to provide stability rubbed a blister that became infected and his body could not fight off the infection." He had to be treated in a hotel room, since no hospital beds were big enough. Several days later, he died in his sleep. He was buried in his hometown of Alton, in a 1,000-pound (454-kilogram) casket carried by 12 pallbearers and eight additional helpers. After his death, his family destroyed nearly all possessions, in order to prevent them falling into the hands of collectors who might display them as "freak show memorabilia."

Wadlow never married, and Phillips didn't find evidence that he had any romantic relationships; nevertheless, he was surrounded by love. "It seems that he had amazing social support and inclusion by his family and the Alton community," she notes. "This is not always the case for someone with differences, of course, and it helped him cope with his unique life and all of the external scrutiny."

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