Monday, 20 March 2017

Robert Pershing Wadlow Gentle Giant and the World's Tallest Man

Robert Pershing Wadlow was the first born to Harold F. and Addie Wadlow in Alton, Illinois on Feb. 22, 1918. Alton, Illinois is located twenty five miles north of St Louis on the Mississippi River, located near the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers. Robert was a normal sized baby at eight pounds and six ounces but he quickly began to grow due to an over active pituitary gland. At six months, he weighed 30 pounds. A year later, he weighed 62 pounds. When he was eight years old, Robert had grown to 6' and weighed 169 pounds. Refer to the growth chart below to see Robert's height and weight at various ages.

Robert Wadlow, 6 months old.

Robert Wadlow, sitting in the middle row fourth from the left, as a third grader in the school play "Tom Thumb Wedding" - 1928.

The Wadlow family later grew with the addition of two sisters, Helen and Betty, and two brothers, Eugene and Harold Jr.. Robert's siblings fortunately did not have the same growth problems he did. Robert grew up in a normal family during the tough times of the great depression with parents who loved their children.

The Wadlow family in 1935: brother Eugene, Addie (his mother), Robert, Harold Jr., sister Betty, Harold Sr.(his father), and sister Helen.

Life changed when Robert was nine. Due to Robert's rare and unwieldy stature, Robert Wadlow was sensationalized during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Newsreel photographers and newspaper reporters came and documented him for the masses. Before long, he was known around the world. People flocked to Alton to see the “giant boy” themselves. Some behaved respectfully, some did not. Circuses still recruited people with deformities to be in freak shows at this time. Offers came in for Robert to go on display because of his remarkable height. His family wanted nothing to do with this.
Robert Wadlow, age 10 and his father, Harold.

Robert Wadlow, 10 years old standing next to an average size 10 year old for comparison.


On Jan 25, 1930, Robert Wadlow, 11 years old was examined for the first time by Washington University specialists at Barnes Hospital in St.Louis, where the family first learned of his over-active pituitary gland that caused his fast growth. At eleven years Robert joined the Alton YMCA, participating in swimming, basketball, stamp collecting and camera club.
Robert at age 11 - 6'11"
Robert Wadlow - age 12, with Primo Carnera - World heavy weight champion. Mr.Carnera is 6'5"

Robert Wadlow, Alton, Illinois, giant, was 7 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 290 pounds at the age of 13. He is shown here with his father, Harold Wadlow, and his brother, Eugene, aged 9.

At the age of 13, he joined the Boy Scouts. Robert was the largest Boy Scout in the world. His weight was 270 pounds, and his height was 7'4". It took 14 yards of 36" wide material to make his Boy Scout uniform.

Robert pictured with his boy scout troop.

Newspaper Clipping about Robert being the biggest boy scout.

As a youth Robert's interests were typical of most boy's of his age. He enjoyed photography, reading, collecting stamps, and listening to the radio. In school he maintained good grades, got along with others, and played with other children. Robert Wadlow, joined the Freemason youth club and became a member of Alton Chapter, Order of DeMolay at fifteen, the minimum age one could join.

Robert Wadlow at 15 years off age. To his left is Miss Peter's Shoes, and to his right is his father Harold.


He was active in DeMolay and attended the DeMolay Founders Conference in Kansas City during the summer of 1936. He held the office of Chaplain and just four days after his twenty-first birthday in 1939, received his Majority in a special ceremony attended by over 400 at the Franklin Masonic Temple in Alton.

Robert was a conscientious student and ranked well above the average in high school. In high school Robert was popular and active in many extracurricular activities, even serving as the advertising manager for the Tatler – Alton High School yearbook. He was completely accepted by his peers. He graduated in the January class, 1936.
1936 - Alton High School Yearbook, featuring Robert Wadlow.
Robert is pictured in the graduating Senior Section for Class of 1935 and then it says "Not Graduating" under his name. There were two graduating classes for many schools in that era; one in the Winter and one in the Summer. In all likelihood he was right on the edge of having enough credits to perhaps make the June 1935 graduating class, but at the last minute didn't make it so he wound up ultimately graduating in the January 1936 class. Back in those days this would have been considered his "lower Senior" yearbook.

Photo of Robert and the graduating class of Alton High School.

After graduating high school Robert enrolled in Shurleff College with the intention of getting a law degree. Although granted a scholarship to Alton's Shurtleff College, he had to quit after one year due to his difficulty in getting from building to building, especially during icy winter conditions.
Robert Wadlow posing in front of a doorway at the 1936 Illinois State Fair.
Robert Wadlow at the Texas Centennial 1936 posing with the "Sons of the Pioneers"
Sep. 13, 1938: World's tallest man Robert Wadlow at eight feet 11 inces, poses with Los Angeles County Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz for Los Angeles Times staff photographer Paul Calvert.

Mary Pickford, Motion Picture Actress, being greeted at the St.Louis Airport by Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man, 1938.

Robert thought of himself as being a goodwill ambassador, not as a human exhibit, and rejected many invitations to be in the circus. But Ringling's offer in 1937 was simply too good to turn down. He stipulated that he would only appear in engagements at Madison Square Garden and at the Boston Garden and that he would appear only two times a day for three minutes at a time. He demanded to be in the center ring, not the sideshow. He would wear only a plain business suit.


The Portsmouth Herald and Times - April 27, 1937 - page 6. Advertisement for Ringling Bros. Circus at the Boston Garden, featuring Robert Waldow - The Alton Giant.
Photo of Robert aboard the Queen Mary, during his time as the star attraction of the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, which opens at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, April 8th, 1937.
At age 18, Robert wore size 37 shoes, which cost $100 a pair, the equivalent of about $1,500 today. Two years later his shoes were provided free by the International Shoe Company. In 1938, Robert undertook a promotional tour as a goodwill ambassador for the International Shoe Company, promoting Peters Shoes. Harold quit his job as worker at an oil company to devote himself to Robert by being his traveling companion and driver. Robert and his father visited 800 towns and 41 states. Robert traveled in a car that had been modified by his father to accommodate him so that he could travel in relative comfort. His father removed the front passenger seat so Robert could sit at the back and stretch his long legs.

Robert Wadlow standing by the family car in Alton, Ill., on July 22, 1939, as he prepares to leave on a tour. His father accompanied him on promotional trips.

Robert spent the rest of his short life making public appearances. Between the tours, as well as numerous other public appearances, Robert became one of the most popular American celebrities of the time. His placid nature earned him the nickname “Gentle Giant.” When asked in a rare radio interview if he minded having people stare at him while walking out on the street, Robert revealed his good natured attitude while replying, "No, I just overlook them."


Robert and his father enjoying a moment together. Notice the custom made chair for Robert.
Robert Wadlow and Father, Harold Wadlow.
Robert Wadlow, standing 8-foot-5, at the Veiled Prophet Parade and festivities in 1937 where a curious crowd swarmed.
Robert Wadlow's appearance at Smith's Department store in Bulan, Kentucky.

Robert was a great radio fan. He spent much of his leisure time listening to the broadcast of sports events and other radio programs. This picture taken in 1938, of Robert and his little brother, Harold Jr. show them giving their full attention to a favorite radio show.
Robert playing with a train set with his brother.
On a promotional engagement, Wadlow appeared at the old Thomas Smith Dept. Store, Bulan (Perry County), Kentucky, on May 4, 1940.

Robert and his family 1939.


Robert's enormous size put undue strain on him physically. He required leg braces to walk and had very little feeling in his lower extremities. On July 4, 1940, while appearing at the National Forest Festival at Manistee, Michigan and riding in the 4th of July Parade. Robert mentioned to his father he wasn't feeling well. They pulled from the parade and immediately went to the Hotel Chippewa in Manistee and called a doctor. A brace worn on his ankle had chafed and infection had set in. Robert was confined to his hotel room, hospital accommodations were not available. Physicians gave him blood transfusion, and performed a minor operation. His temperature was 106.

Robert's feet had always been a source of trouble. Five times since 1930 he had received treatment at Barnes hospital for infections and broken bones. He had little sensation in his feet and did not feel chafing until blisters formed. The doctors kept in constant contact  with Barnes hospital who had all of Robert's medical history.

 Equipment, accommodations and ability were inadequate. Robert's mother arrived from Alton. Robert removed his masonic ring, placed it on a night table and confided to his father he had a "strange feeling". Robert died in his sleep at 1:30 am, July 15, 1940. On Monday, July 15, 1940, newspapers across the country carried the headlines that, "Robert Wadlow, Alton Giant, Dies of foot infection." Robert's body was taken back to his hometown of Alton, ILL. for burial in a specially constructed coffin. The coffin was constructed by the Grand Traverse Casket Company. The coffin was constructed of steel and measured 10 feet six inches by three feet two inches.

Robert Wadlow's custom made coffin being loaded onto a flatbed truck in order to be delivered to Alton, ILL.


Mayor Leo Struiff ordered the flag at city hall to be flown at half-staff and called for a five minute cease of business activity, during the funeral services, to pay tribute to the memory of the young man who brought fame to Alton.

Funeral arrangements were made at the Streeper Funeral Home. The crowds which filed past the bier were counted by an attendant with a mechanical counter at 41,195. In life, Robert Wadlow, had attracted the attention of millions. In death, tribute was paid to him by those who knew him and admired him.

Robert was entombed in a coffin 10 feet long and weighing 1,000 pounds, requiring a dozen pallbearers and eight other assistants. Robert's funeral was attended by 27,000 people. Robert’s parents buried their son’s body under a vault of concrete because of fears for the sanctity of his body. Upon the death of Robert Wadlow his family had almost all of his belongings destroyed. They didn’t want collectors to purchase his clothing and other items to be displayed as any kind of   "freak" memorabilia, or to display anything about him as a "freak", which he wasn’t. He was a young man who had a disease for which there was no treatment or cure at the time, a young man who loved his family, and a young man who embraced life.
Robert P. Wadlow being carried in special made coffin..
Two members of the local DeMolay lodge form an honor guard at the casket of the late Robert Wadlow, tallest human being listed in medical history, who died in a hospital at Ministee, Michigan, while on tour for a shoe company. A special 10 1/2 foot, steel casket was made to receive his body.

Robert Pershing Wadlow (February 22, 1918 – July 15, 1940) was the tallest person in recorded history as confirmed by Guinness World Records. Robert reached 8 feet 11.1 inches and weighed 439lb at his death at age 22. He showed no indication of an end to his growth even at the time of his death.

Robert Pershing Wadlow didn't choose his situation, but his accomplishment was in how he handled it. Robert Wadlow was known around his home town, by family and friends as a gentle giant. Thanks to the Guinness book of Records he will also be remembered as the world’s tallest man.

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