Robert Pershing Wadlow (February 22, 1918 – July 15, 1940) also known as the Alton Giant and the Giant of Illinois, is the tallest person in history for whom there is irrefutable evidence. The Alton and Illinois monikers reflect the fact that he was born and grew up in Alton, Illinois.
Wadlow reached 8 ft 11.1 in (2.72 m) in height and weighed 439 lb (199 kg) at his death at age 22. His great size and his continued growth in adulthood were due to hyperplasia of his pituitary gland, which results in an abnormally high level of human growth hormone. He showed no indication of an end to his growth even at the time of his death.
Robert Pershing Wadlow was born to Addie Johnson and Harold Wadlow in Alton, Illinois on February 22, 1918, and was the oldest of five children. He was taller than his father at age 12, and in elementary school they had to make a special desk for him due to his size. After graduating from Alton High School in 1936, he enrolled in Shurtleff College with the intention of studying law. By the time he had graduated from high school, he was 8 ft 4 in (2.54 m).
Wadlow’s size began to take its toll: he required leg braces to walk, and had little feeling in his legs and feet. One of his friends, Michael, helped him with the struggle. Despite these difficulties, Wadlow never used a wheelchair.
Wadlow was a celebrity; he was well-known owing to his 1936 U.S. tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus and his 1938 promotional tour with the INTERCO. He continued participating in tours and public appearances, though only in his normal street clothes. His shoes were provided to him free of charge by a shoe company for which he did promotional work and appearances. Examples still exist in several locations throughout the US, including Snyder’s Shoe Store of Ludington and Manistee, Michigan, and the Alton Museum of History and Art.
Wadlow was a Freemason. In 1939, he petitioned Franklin Lodge #25 in Alton, Illinois, and by late November of that year was raised to the degree of Master Mason under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Illinois A.F & A.M. Wadlow’s Freemason ring was the largest ever made.
One year before his death, he passed John Rogan as the tallest person ever. On June 27, 1940 (eighteen days before his death), he was measured at 8 ft 11.1 in (2.72 m) by doctors C. M. Charles and Cyril MacBryde of Washington University in St. Louis.
On July 4, 1940 (11 days before his death), during a professional appearance at the Manistee National Forest Festival, a faulty brace irritated his ankle, causing a blister and subsequent parasitic infection. Doctors treated him with a blood transfusion and emergency surgery, but his condition worsened due to an auto-immune disorder, and on July 15, 1940, he died in his sleep at age 22.
A life-size statue of Wadlow stands on College Avenue in Alton, opposite the Alton Museum of History and Art. The statue was erected in 1986, in honor of the hometown native. Another statue of him stands in the Guinness Museum in Niagara Falls, and others are at several of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums. A group of six life-size models, made by artist James Butler, exist, and are shipped and displayed in replica caskets.
Another life-size statue may be viewed at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In front of the statue is a small, quarter-operated ‘TV-box’, which plays a short, documentary movie about the extraordinarily short life of this tall man.
He is still affectionately known as the “Gentle Giant.”
The 1998 song “The Giant of Illinois,” by The Handsome Family (and later covered by Andrew Bird) honors Wadlow. In 2005 Sufjan Stevens recorded “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders” about Wadlow for the Illinois album. A picture of Wadlow with his family is featured on the back cover of the VHS version of the Talking Heads music video compilation, Storytelling Giant.
- February, 22, 1918
- United States
- July, 15, 1914
- United States