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Robert Wadlow and the Valley of the Gentle Giant

Posted by Failed Success on 05/04/06 at 11:03 AM

Robert WadlowIn the early 20th century, a quiet man from a quiet town grew to become the tallest person in recorded history.

Robert Pershing Wadlow was born on February 22, 1918 in the small town of Alton, IL, located just a short drive from St. Louis, MO.

It became quickly apparent to everyone who saw him that this was no ordinary child. By the time of his death in 1940, he had become the tallest person in history as recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records, reaching a staggering 8 feet and 11.1 inches in height and weighing 490lbs.

From the Alton Museum of History and Art:

Robert Pershing Wadlow was born on February 22, 1918. His middle name, Pershing, was in honor of the World War I General Pershing, then commanding officer of the European conflict. He weighed a normal eight pounds, six ounces. He drew attention to himself when at six months old, he weighed 30 pounds. A year later at 18 months, he weighed 62 pounds.

He continued to grow at an astounding rate, reaching six feet, two inches and 195 pounds by the time he was eight years old. His middle name, Pershing, was in honor of the World War I General Pershing, then commanding officer of the European conflict.

Robert was the first born of Addie and Harold Wadlow. Later the Wadlow family grew with the addition of two sisters, Helen and Betty, and two brothers, Eugene and Harold Jr. Despite Robert’s size, all of his family members were of normal height and weight.

Robert Wadlow as a Boy ScoutHe tried his best to just be a kid and do all of the normal things that kids did at that time. He took up photography, collected stamps and matchbooks, as well as joined the YMCA to occupy his time. Eventually became a Boy Scout at the age of 13, by which time he had reached 7 foot 4 inches and was easily the world’s tallest Boy Scout.

In 1936 Wadlow received a scholarship from Shurtleff College of Alton and planned to become an attorney. He found college life to be extremely difficult due to his size. Pens and pencils were difficult for him to use and lab instruments were a nightmare. He quit after one year mostly because he could scarcely walk in icy winter conditions and he had difficulty moving from building to building between classes. Due to his rapid growth, his bones were brittle, and a single fall could put him in the hospital.

While he was unable to continue in his legal pursuits, he was able to find employment of a different kind thanks to his remarkable stature. At the age of 19 he joined the Ringling Brothers Circus and toured the United States. A year later, he became a goodwill ambassador for the International Shoe Company and embarked on a goodwill tour visiting over 800 towns throughout 41 states. One great perk for touring with the shoe company was that Robert was provided with free shoes, which at $100.00 a pair for his size 37 shoes (a lot of money back in the 1930’s), was a big savings.

Between these tours, as well as numerous other public appearances, Robert became one of the most popular American celebrities at the time. A man named D Heuer from Arkansas provides a first hand glimpse at what it was like when Robert came to town:

Robert WadlowI had the privilege of traveling with his group to small towns as Mtn. Home and Harrsion in Arkansas and Hollister and Branson in Missouri.

I met Robert the first time he came to Batesville to visit my dad’s shoe store in the mid thirties. Dad advertised with circulars delivered town to town by car with boys riding the car’s running boards, jumping off to put the circulars porch to porch.

Without radio stations in the small towns advertising was by newspapers, circulars and mouth to ear. Robert’s visit was advertised in this manner Months before his visit’s Thousands of people came to see the Gentle Giant from Alton, Illinois.

They walked, rode a horse or mule, and came by wagons and a few by cars. The street was roped of from corner to corner for the people. They treated him with respect even though a few thought he was not really that tall, perhaps he was on stilts?

On July 4, 1940, Wadlow was hospitalized in Manistee, Michigan while making a professional appearance at the National Forest Festival in Manistee; a faulty brace had irritated his ankle, causing a blister and bad infection. Because of his size, Robert had lost most of the feeling in his feet and had continued problems with blisters and chafing on his feet because he could not feel the pain of his ankle brace rubbing into the skin.

Doctors treated him with blood transfusions and emergency surgery but his fever only worsened. On 14 July, his condition was said to be “very grave” and he was using a feeding tube. His temperature never dropped below 106F (41C) during that day. At 12:40pm on 15 July, 1940, he died in his sleep.

Robert Wadlow StatueHe was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in upper Alton, IL on 19 July. His half-ton casket required a dozen pallbearers and eight other men to carry. On the day of his funeral, all city businesses were closed out of respect. Around 40,000 people attended his funeral that day.

Robert Wadlow’s great size and his continued growth in adulthood were due to a tumor within his pituitary gland that excreted large amounts of grown hormone. This condition, known as Acromegalic Gigantism, does not generally attack the entire body. Usually it involves only the lower extremities, so that in most cases the head and trunk are of more or less normal size while the lower torso and legs attain extreme proportions.

In 1985, an impressive life-size bronze statue of Robert Wadlow was erected at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Dental Medicine. To this day he is still affectionately known as the “Gentle Giant.”

Further Reading

- Alton Museum of History and Art - Robert Wadlow
- Robert Wadlow Biography at Answers.com
- Boy Giant by Dan Brannan (Link goes to Amazon.com book listing)

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  1. There is a tribute to Mr. Wadlow in Seattle, WA, at the downtown farmers’ market, which includes a 25 cent peepshow of one of his shoes.

    Posted by travis reems  on  07/24/06  at  01:00 AM