The human body is a vast mystery that continually surprises us despite all of our studies and research into it. Throughout history there have been those exceptional individuals that display highly unusual physical attributes that cause us to take pause and wonder at the mystery of our bodies, and one area where this literally stands out is in regards to our height. How tall would you say is freakishly tall? Perhaps an NBA player? Maybe 7 feet or so? What if I were tell you that this isn’t nearly the end of the human limit for height, and that there have been individuals who would dwarf even the tallest basketball player? If it sounds wild, it is, but there was once a remarkable individual who was so tall as to be almost legendary, topping an unbelievable nearly 9 feet tall in his prime, and who remains an enigmatic figure and testament to the mysteries of the human body.
Robert Pershing Wadlow came into the world in Alton, Illinois on February 22, 1918, and when he was born there was nothing particularly remarkable about him. He was a normal baby boy weighing an average 8.7 pounds, and considering that his parents Harold and Addie Wadlow were normal sized people there was no reason to think that he wouldn’t grow to be anything other than an ordinary boy. However, before long it became very obvious that Robert Wadlow was no normal boy. At around 6 months he already weighed twice as much as an average baby of that age, and by the time he started walking he weighed 40 pounds. By the age of 5 he was wearing clothes made for teenagers, standing 5 feet 4 inches and weighing 105 pounds, and from there he just kept growing and growing. When Robert was 8 years old he was already taller than his own father, who stood a respectable 5 feet 11 inches and he towered over his 1st grade elementary school teacher. Indeed, he needed a special desk at school that could accommodate his freakish height, and his growth wasn’t slowing down.
When he was just 11 years old, Robert stood 6 feet 7 inches, towering over most others, and worried that there was perhaps something wrong with their son the Wadlows brought Robert to see a doctor. It was determined that he was suffering from hypertrophy of his pituitary gland, which was causing a high level of human growth hormone that was driving the boy’s unchecked growth. Indeed, it didn’t seem he would ever stop growing, and by 13 he was 7 feet 4 inches tall. In the meantime, it was hard for him to go anywhere without drawing stares and crowds of curiosity seekers, not to mention having to remember to duck, and so he parlayed this into a sort of advertising career, appearing at department stores or sporting events to wear outsized sponsored clothing. He and his father made appearances all over the country for Peters Shoe Co., riding about in a modified car that had the front passenger seat removed, and his fame grew as he did. He also sold autographed photos of himself and made quite a bit of pocket money doing so, but he did all of this in a dignified way, insisting that it was advertising and not akin to a circus freak show.
In Robert’s high school years his growth continued, but by this point he was also suffering health issues, so he was not allowed to play basketball, but rather acted as a “dropper,” merely standing by the basket and simply dropping a passed ball into it. By the time he graduated high school and started studying law at Shurtleff College in Alton he stood a bit over 8 feet 4 inches tall, so tall that many who saw him could hardly believe it, sometimes poking at his shins to see if he was wearing stilts. In fact, he was already the world’s tallest man by that point, and by this time he was well-known across the country and a bit of a celebrity. He made appearances with the Ringling Brothers Circus and appeared in Ripley’s Believe it or Not, but he always remained dignified and humble. As all of this was going on, he joined the Masonic Order of DeMolay, later becoming a Freemason and achieving the rank of Master Mason.
Despite all of his success, being so tall was taking its toll on Wadlow’s body and health. Since he was so immense, he required a cane and leg braces to help him get around because his legs just could not support all of his weight and he had various organ ailments as well due to his vast mass. He also had to go up steps sideways due to his massive size U.S. size 37 AA feet, the largest ever recorded, and since he had very little sensation in his legs and feet he was prone to slipping and falling. Nevertheless, he continued to grow, passing up the previous tallest man who had ever lived, John Rogan, who died in 1905 and had stood at 8 feet 9 inches tall. Sadly, while on a promotional tour at the Manistee National Forest Festival, in Manistee, Michigan, Wadlow developed an infection from a blister caused by a badly adjusted leg brace, and passed away from the ensuing fever on July 15, 1940 at the young age of just 22 years old. At the time of death, Wadlow weighed 490 pounds and stood 8 feet 11.1 inches tall, the tallest known person to have ever lived based on irrefutable evidence, indeed towering over the next tallest person by a good margin. His coffin measured 10 feet 9 inches long and was made of steel in order to keep anyone from trying to steal his body from his resting place at a concrete vault in Oakwood Cemetery in Upper Alton, Madison County, Illinois.
Interestingly, it has been suspected that Wadlow would have likely not stopped growing if he hadn’t died, with experts speculating that he could have gotten to 9 feet or over. As there are now treatments for this sort of pituitary gland issue there is the very real possibility that Wadlow’s gigantic stature will likely never be matched. Although he is now gone, he has remained a great marvel of the human body, and has been commemorated with a life-sized statue on College Avenue in Alton, opposite the Alton Museum of History and Art, where he remains by far the city’s most famous resident. His story is a curious peek into the mysteries of the human body and what we are capable of becoming under the right circumstances, and it shows us that our very own physiology is sometimes just as strange as any paranormal mystery out there.