He might have been almost 9 feet tall, but Robert Wadlow was a gentle giant known for his quiet manner and easy smile. Unfortunately, the world isn’t made for people that tall and he often struggled with finding accommodations for his great height. Health issues plagued him from the start and he lived only 22 years—but he still managed to make the most of it.
1. He Was A Regular Newborn
The average newborn weighs roughly 7-8 pounds at birth. When Robert was born, he weighed 8.5 pounds—perfectly within acceptable range. At birth, his mother, Addie, and his father, Harold, had no reason to suspect anything was strange about their bouncing baby boy, the first of five children. But while babies always grow fast, Robert Wadlow’s family was in for an enormous shock.
2. He Grew Over A Foot In 6 Months
Addie and Harold might have started wondering if Robert’s growth was normal by the time he was six months old—at which point he was the size of the average two-year-old. He also weighed around 30 pounds, which was quite the weight for his mother to be carrying constantly. Fortunately, he began to walk at 11 months, at which point he was over 3 feet tall—and his growth just escalated from there.
3. He Outgrew His Father
Robert’s father Harold was 5’11”, which is a totally respectable height, and actually a little taller than the global average. By the age of eight, however, Robert had outgrown his own father and had been wearing clothes meant for teenagers since the age of five. His elementary school even had to custom build a special desk for him so he could actually sit without his knees ending up somewhere around his ears.
But his massive height wasn’t all bad; with it came a terrifying physical strength.
4. He Carried His Father Up The Stairs—In A Chair
Hey, if you’ve got massive physical strength, you might as well show it off. At only nine years old, Robert was able to not only carry his own father, but do it while his father was sitting in a living room chair. That’s amazing enough, but he was strong enough to carry his father plus the chair up the stairs to the second floor. This strength lasted him through most of his life, but he never used it for his own gain.
After all, he was a Boy Scout.
5. He Was The World’s Tallest Boy Scout
Like most boys his age, Robert joined the Boy Scouts as he reached his teenage years. At 13 years old, he was a whopping 7’4” and wore size 19 US shoes. Not only that, his uniform had to be custom-made for him using 14 yards of fabric. For reference, that’s forty-two feet. By then his parents had obviously realized there was something unusual about their boy, and they took him to the doctor to find out what.
6. He Had A Problem With His Pituitary Gland
The pituitary gland is a tiny little gland that sits at the base of your brain and sends out hormones. One of these hormones–the main one, in fact–causes you to grow until you reach your adult height. Then it’s supposed to shut off…but in Robert’s case, it didn’t. So he kept growing…and growing…and growing…
It’s entirely possible that Robert would have continued to grow even taller if not for his untimely passing at the age of just 22. But though his life was short, he certainly made the best of it.
7. He Had Plenty Of Hobbies
Robert’s parents made a real effort to give him as normal a childhood as possible. So they expected him to play with his younger siblings and participate in family activities. One time he even helped his siblings make $100 from a lemonade stand—by showing off his height if people bought a drink.
Beyond the Boy Scouts, Robert loved photography, stamp collecting, and playing his guitar. And you’d think someone that tall would be an awesome basketball player, but, as he would quickly learn, life as a giant wasn’t that simple.
8. He Wanted To Play
In high school, Robert wanted to play basketball on the team, and given the average basketball hoop is about ten feet high, he would’ve had quite the advantage. But the high school coach was afraid that he would get hurt and told Robert he would need proper basketball shoes first. Unfortunately, though Robert often traveled to games with the team, he couldn’t find shoes to fit his enormous feet until the season was over. Getting too big for his hobbies was a sad fact of life for Robert.
9. He Outgrew His Hobbies—Literally
It wasn’t just his feet, either. Taking photographs and playing guitar means using your hands, which is hard to do when your hands are over a foot long. Even in the 1930s, cameras were small enough that Robert quickly struggled to get his fingers in the right places. As for playing guitar, well, some reach is helpful, but in Robert’s hands, the average guitar was more like the size of a ukulele. Instead, he decided to focus on college.
10. He Studied Law
After graduating high school at 17 years old and 8’3”, Robert enrolled in Shurtleff College in his hometown of Alton, Illinois with the intent of becoming a lawyer. He only lasted a semester. He soon took a break to decide what he wanted to do with his life. His choice seems obvious in hindsight: Robert was going to join the circus.
11. He Became A Star Attraction
Circuses have a bit of a reputation for featuring “freaks” and “oddities”, so it’s really no surprise that Ringling Brothers wanted to recruit Robert. But Robert refused to just be another sideshow and instead insisted on featuring in the center ring. He also appeared in regular clothes and refused when the circus asked him to wear a top hat and tails.
That said, not everyone was happy with this decision.
12. They Were Against The Circus
Harold and Addie had worked hard to keep Robert’s life as normal as possible. Because of their efforts, in Alton, Robert was just another neighbor, albeit a very large one. So Robert’s family didn’t really want him to become a circus attraction. But, unfortunately, they wouldn’t have a choice: This was 1936 and the entire country suffered in the depths of the Great Depression, the Wadlows included.
The lack of money helped motivate Robert to sign the Ringling Brothers’ contract and tour nationwide, including Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden. His stint as a circus performer was a short one, however, as he soon found an even better gig.
13. He Had Enormous Feet
You know what they say about big feet…big shoes. Unsurprisingly, Robert had to wear custom-made shoes for his 18.5-inch feet. His shoes cost him a hundred bucks a pair—and remember this was in the late 30s, during the Great Depression. Adjusted for inflation, those same shoes today would cost a whopping $2,000. But having such big feet caught the attention of more than just curious passers-by.
14. They Gave Him Free Shoes
The deal was simple: The International Shoe Company gave Robert new shoes for free and in exchange, he toured the country promoting them. Seems like a cushy gig—but it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Robert ended up visiting 800 towns in 41 states, traveling roughly 300,000 miles. His father even had to remove the front seat of the car so Robert had somewhere to stretch out his legs—from the back seat.
But it was these tours that eventually turned Robert’s life into a tragedy.
15. He Battled Bad Health
Humans aren’t really meant to be so tall; we aren’t built for it. From a young age, Robert had issues with his physical health, especially in his feet and legs. At 14, a slight slip while playing with friends broke two bones in his foot and forced him into ankle braces for the rest of his life. And it wasn’t the first or only time he injured himself due to his size.
16. He Weighed Almost 500 Pounds
When you think of someone weighing 500 pounds, you probably have a certain image in your head. When looking at photos of Robert, it doesn’t seem like he could weigh that much, as he was quite thin. But at almost 9 feet tall, even a skinny person will weigh a whole lot more than the average.
Robert’s highest weight topped out at 491 pounds when he was 21 years old. And so much weight took its toll on the legs that tried to support him.
17. He Was Frequently Hospitalized
Nobody likes to go to the hospital, but Robert was a frequent visitor—and not by choice. When he was 17, he had to be hospitalized for eight weeks due to an infection in his foot. What caused it? A shoe-pad meant to help relieve some of the pressure on his arches. To add insult to injury, Robert couldn’t walk into the hospital under his own power. Instead, eight men carried him using a reinforced stretcher.
And it was hardly the last time he got an infection.
18. Doctors Studied Him
By his late teens, Robert was quite well-known—after all, someone that tall is hard to ignore. When he was 18, a doctor named Charles Humberd, who was studying gigantism, visited him at home. After examining him, Humberd came to a troubling realization.
19. He Lacked Feeling
Dr. Humberd actually doubted the stories of this enormous man in Illinois, which is why he traveled to Alton to meet Robert in person. After that meeting, he described Robert as “colossal and stupendous in bulk” but at least added that Robert was “symmetrical”. He also noted that Robert had trouble with sensation in his feet, including touch, temperature—and pain.
This may not sound like a very big problem—but just you wait.
20. He Was Prone To Blisters
We’ve all had the occasional blister on our feet, usually caused by shoes rubbing or a small pebble getting in. Most of the time, you’ll notice it pretty quickly, because it’s uncomfortable. But for Robert, that simply didn’t happen. He didn’t realize anything was wrong until it was too late.
21. His Blisters Turned Into Ulcers
If you don’t tend to a blister, it can turn into an ulcer and get really ugly. Because Robert often didn’t even realize he had a blister, he would get ulcers that became infected and caused high fevers. Even worse, there was really no way he could escape causing the blisters in the first place because his great size forced him into wearing braces just so he could stand up straight. His life became an ugly game of Catch-22—and it was only going to get worse.
22. Doctors Struggled To Help Him
In the 1920s and 1930s, medical technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and Robert suffered for it starting from a young age. For one, if he’d been born today, he likely wouldn’t have grown so tall. Current medicine has medications and surgeries that could have calmed his growth hormone down. He might still have been a big man—but he also might have lived past the age of 22. But his local doctors were too afraid to operate on him—and he desperately needed it.
23. He Relied On Braces And A Cane
As mentioned, Robert’s massive height put a lot of strain on his legs. In fact, he had to wear leg braces and use a cane just to walk around. He had the option of a wheelchair but always refused, perhaps out of pride. Either way, the braces he used were often made of iron, which isn’t exactly the most forgiving material. Combined with his lack of feeling, it was a recipe for trouble.
But Robert kept pushing on, gaining more fans wherever he went.
24. He Was A Hometown Hero
Alton, Illinois is a little town near the border of Illinois and Missouri, roughly 18 miles from St. Louis. During his short life, Robert was their claim to fame, earning him the nickname The Alton Giant (among others). By all accounts, though, the citizens of Alton treated Robert well. Not only did he get the custom desk from his elementary school, but the local movie theater made accommodations so he could come and enjoy movies without trying to cram himself into a tiny seat.
In total, Robert ended up using five whole seats just to himself: one to sit, one each for his arms, and two for his legs.
25. He Was Intelligent And Friendly
The people who worked with Robert in his short life have had nothing but good to say about him. As International Shoe Company field rep Harold Kirsh recounted in Tim Leone’s 1975 documentary, The Story of Robert, Robert had a great sense of humor—which he often displayed on double dates. He also loved kids, making time for them wherever he went, and often asked Kirsh to make sure he was clean and presentable.
He definitely knew the importance of keeping a clean-cut image.
26. He Accepted His Fame
The people around Robert could have regarded him as a freak of nature—and to some people, he probably was. But with the support of his family and community, he was able to take his growing fame with good humor. Family and friends described him as polite and well-mannered, but though he enjoyed seeing new places, the constant travel took its toll on him.
And despite his good nature, there was one thing that made him angry.
27. He Hated When People Grabbed Him
Nobody likes being touched without their consent, but for Robert, it was more than just an aggravation. As patient as he was, the only time he truly got angry at the people gawking at him was when they tried to grab his legs. Some people would even kick him! Their excuse was that they thought his great height was a trick achieved using stilts, but you can hardly blame the guy for getting a little ticked off when it happened.
Either way, he was happiest at home—but sadly, he was unable to return to Alton when his final illness took hold.
28. He Got Sick On Tour
In 1940, Robert was touring on behalf of the International Shoe Company, visiting Michigan’s Manistee National Forest Festival. He participated in their Independence Day Parade, which included marching through the streets with the other parade participants. Sadly, what should have been a time of celebration soon turned tragic.
29. His Brace Rubbed His Foot
Those iron braces became Robert’s downfall. He didn’t realize that one of them didn’t fit quite right, and during the parade, it caused a blister on his ankle—that he also didn’t notice. His first inkling that something wasn’t right was when he returned to his hotel room with a fever. And instead of immediately going to the hospital, Robert made a devastating decision.
30. He Refused To Go To The Hospital
Maybe he’d just spent too much time in hospitals. Maybe he didn’t realize just how bad the blister was. Whatever Robert was thinking, he refused to go to the hospital to get checked out. Instead, he only allowed a doctor to come to his hotel room. There, the doctor treated him with emergency surgery and blood transfusions, but it was too late.
31. His Family Rushed To His Side
As soon as they heard about Robert’s illness, his mother, Addie, and brother, Harold Jr., flew to Michigan to support him. Harold knew immediately that it was serious, stating that Robert was very quiet and his temperature was very high. For a week, they stayed at his bedside as doctors tried to save him, but it was no use.
32. He Battled For A Week
Bedridden, Robert tried to fight off the infection, but his immune system was already compromised by his great size. Not to mention his organs already struggled trying to support him. For a week he fought, wanting desperately to get home to Alton, his favorite place in the world. Not only that, but he had been planning to attend his grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary in Florida later that month. He held onto that wish even to the end.
33. He Passed In His Sleep
Robert’s last words were to his parents: “The doctor says I won’t get home for the…celebrations”. This was the night of July 14, 1940, and Robert passed in his sleep the next day. As he was only 22 years old, his passing was shocking for most of his friends and family, but they went out of their way to honor him and his short life—and protect his remains from some unsavory elements.
34. His Family Destroyed Most Of His Possessions
The Wadlow family spent Robert’s life determined to keep him from becoming a sideshow, and they continued this mission after his passing. To prevent people from collecting his custom-made and oversized belongings and displaying them for people to gawk at, his family destroyed the majority of them. What remained, they donated to the Alton Museum of History and Art. And they went even further to protect his body.
35. His Coffin Was Custom-Made
Like most things in Robert Wadlow’s life, his last resting place was custom-built to fit his great size. His casket was ten feet, six inches long—too long to fit fully inside the hearse that carried him to Oakwood Cemetery. Not only that, but it weighed 1,000 pounds and required 16 men to carry it. It seems unlikely anyone with bad intentions could have done anything to such a large and heavy casket, but his family refused to leave anything to chance.
36. They Poured Concrete Over His Grave
There are people out there who would happily dig up a grave just to display body parts. In fact, it’s happened before to others like Robert; in the 1700s, a specimen collector named John Hunter stole the body of 8-foot-tall Charles Byrne to display it in his personal museum. Yikes.
Unwilling to let this happen to their son, Robert’s family bought a vault and after the casket moved to its final resting place, they had concrete poured over it. There was absolutely no way they were letting anyone take advantage of Robert after his passing—no matter how beloved he was.
37. Thousands Mourned Him
Some people only have one or two mourners at their funerals. Robert Wadlow had thousands. In fact, so many people came to his visitation that the funeral home had to replace their carpets—the scuff of so many feet had simply worn them out. Harold Jr. described his brother as “sort of like a movie star” in terms of popularity. Businesses in Alton even closed their doors temporarily as a gesture of respect. And Robert’s legacy carries on even today.
38. He’s In The Guinness Hall Of Fame
We’ve all met some really tall people in our lives, but Robert continues to put them all to shame. To this day, he remains in the Guinness Hall of Fame as the tallest man ever, at least whose height is irrefutable. A few others have come close–like Sultan Kösen at just over 8’2” and Bao Xishun at 7’9”–but Robert remains the champion. Not only that, but he’s had statues erected in his honor.
39. He Has Life-Sized Statues
Building a statue of someone is the ultimate show of respect—especially when they’re life-sized. In Robert’s case, these statues are huge and certainly catch your attention. One of them stands on the campus of the Alton Dental College, while others stand on display in museums like Ripley’s. And speaking of respect, the Alton statue drew a gesture from a very important man.
40. A Former President Reached Out
The Alton community dedicated Robert Wadlow’s statue in 1985, and none other than Ronald Reagan sent a telegram. He actually remembered hearing about Robert in the 1930s and called Robert “a kind and good-humored man”. Not a bad legacy for someone who only lived 22 years but still made it into the record books.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16