Who knows what was on Robert Wadlow’s mind that 27th June 1940 when the man was measured for his last time; he was going to become the absolute record in the whole history as the tallest human being ever registered, with his unbelievable 272 cm (8 ft 11.1 in). In February he had turned 22, age in which usually you don’t grow any longer, whilst he kept on getting taller without showing any sign of slowdown.
Below: Robert with a friend of the same age at 10 years old
Although the newspapers were publishing about him on the front page and the whole USA were celebrating Robert as a national pride, the big guy wasn’t very happy: His height wasn’t gift from the gods but effect of a disease, the hyperplasia, abnormal growth due to a benign tumor of the hypophysis, endocrine gland which regulates times and speed of human growth. It is still complex nowadays to treat a condition such as that, let alone back to the time where the American entered the 2WW.
The giants become so for an overproduction of the GH (growth hormone) at a pre-pubescent stage or for a condition that pops up in a post-pubescent stage. The giants from the first category, the”hypophyseal gigantism”, grow preserving a certain harmony in the shape of their body, because their bones are still not calcified; the ones from the second group, the “acromegaly”, have instead a disharmonic development, with some parts growing more than others as the calcified bones were hold out against it more.
Robert Wadlow belonged to the first type: since his childhood he was taller than his friends, and by the time he was 6 he was 170 cm (5′ 7″). The threshold of the 2 meters (6.6 ft) was passed once he hit 10-11 years old. Along with his height, his physical mass was growing too and at 22 years old he was beyond 200 kg (440 lb). He most certainly did not look fat though.
History is full of tales handed down either written or orally about giants and primitive giant bones have been found too; this though is hard to demonstrate as the anthropometric proportions are extremely variable and it’s easy to be deceived. The scientific measurements could not be made before the invention of the metre as a unit of measurement, and this happened only at the end of the 18th century. In the 19th one many giants were measured, and often they made the fortune of producers who would make then exhibit in circus and other shows suchlike.
Even when they were making good money with such careers, their existences were somewhat unhappy, distinguished by continuous diseases and the solitude for the impossibility to find companions of adequate dimensions. A singular exception was the Canadian Anna Haining (1846-88), 227 cm tall (7′ 5.4″), who got married with Martin Van Buren Bates, 219 cm tall (7’2.3″). The couple had two children but they both died due to complications from the labour. The second one, 71 cm long (2’4″) and weighing 10.5 kg (23 lb), was the tallest child ever registered.
Before Robert Wadlow, the tallest man ever measured was the Afro-American John Rogan (1868-1905) from Tennessee, 267 cm tall (8’9″). During his brief life Rogan had always disliked public exhibitions, turning down all the money he could have gathered through it, and he kept selling his paintings and drawings to his fans, as he was a proficient man of art.
Robert officially exceeded Rogan when he was measured for his last but one time in June 1939.
But his biography shows a boy who would have liked nothing but a normal life. First of 5 children, born on the 22nd of February 1918 and always been in Alton in Illinois, the guy had been a good student where he always had to have customised school desks. He graduated from High School in 1936 and then he went to the Shurtleff College University of his city where he picked up Law with the intention to become a lawyer. To this day, the school has a full size statue dedicated to him, placed in its garden.
He had also been a Boy Scout and tried as much as he could to do what the other guys of his age would do, up until that was possible for him. Throughout the years, his enormous dimensions had brought more and more issues, especially to his legs, extremely long and not strong enough to bear the bust weight. Unlike other giants, he did not surrender to the wheelchair, but instead he preferred to help himself with a cane and some orthopedic brace.
It was one of these orthopedic braces which caused his death, a few weeks after his last measurement
A wonder such as him could not go unnoticed to the eyes of the advertisers, whom in fact utilised him for several campaigns as a testimonial, one of which from a footwear company that was the one producing his made to measure shoes. With the ads he had a good income and sometimes he even had to travel around in order to attend certain events. On the 4th of July 1940, for the Independence Day, he had to go to the National Reserve in Manistee, Michigan, founded a few years before yet already renown to the hikers of all the states.
In order to remain up for the necessary time without getting too tired, they installed new metallic orthopedic braces on his legs. One of those, while rubbing against his skin, created a deep abrasion to his ankle. Robert did not notice it because, due to his growth and stretching of his nerves, his sensitivity to his far ends of his body was limited.
The episode was underestimated by the specialists and the wound got infected and he was taken to the hospital. The antibiotics back then were still at an experimental phase. Robert underwent surgery and had some blood transfusions but something went wrong. Instead of healing he developed an autoimmune reaction probably caused by the non completely compatible blood type. After 11 days of agony he died while asleep, on the 15th of July 1940.
He was taken to Alton in a coffin 3.5 m long and 450 kg heavy (11.5 ft and 993 lb), that was carried by 20 men during a public ceremony where 40,000 people were attending. That was the last goodbye to the guy who just would have liked to be normal and even before becoming a celebrity he had managed to be loved by anyone. Very social and friendly, protective towards the children and whoever seemed fragile, always ready to play around and posing for a picture. They would call him “The Gentle Giant”, a name that today still represents him, even after all these decades.
The States are literally scattered with full size statues of him, often placed inside or in front of some Science Museum. The renown English sculptor James Butler has even series-produced him with a high price tag.
Below: a video shows Mr. Wadlow during some daily moments