Robert Wadlow, Alton's Gentleman Giant

The world’s tallest man was born, lived, and died in Alton, Illinois. Robert Pershing Wadlow was known as the “Gentleman Giant” because of his positive attitude and pleasant disposition.

Robert was born February 22, 1918 to Harold F. and Addie Wadlow. The oldest of the couple’s five children, the family lived on Monroe Street in Alton. His was a normal birth, weighing 8 pounds, 6 ounces when he was born, but it quickly became apparent that something was awry. At six months, he weighed 30 pounds. A year later, he weighed 62 pounds.

By the time he was eight years old, Robert had grown to 6’2” and weighed 195 pounds and was wearing clothing that would fit a 17-year-old.

Despite his ever-increasing height, Robert tried to live a normal life. He joined the Boy Scouts (it took 14 yards of 36” material to make his Boy Scout uniform) and, later, the Masons. He was the advertising manager of the Tatler – Alton High School’s yearbook.

After he graduated from Alton High School in 1936, he enrolled in Shurleff College with the intention of getting a law degree. Shurleff College is now Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville’s Dental school.

It’s unclear when exactly he was diagnosed with hypertrophy of his pituitary gland, which results in an abnormally high level of human growth hormone. But certainly doctors in that era had no idea how to help him. At the time of his death, he showed no indication that he had stopped growing.

Me and Robert Wadlow, the world's tallest man. I'm 5'6"; Robert Wadlow was  8' 11"
Me and Robert Wadlow, the world's tallest man. I'm 5'6"; Robert Wadlow was 8' 11" | Source
Galax Furniture Co. made a special chair for Robert Wadlow that accommodated his large frame.
Galax Furniture Co. made a special chair for Robert Wadlow that accommodated his large frame. | Source

Robert was well-traveled, active in the community and religious organizations and had a positive attitude and a gentle manner, which earned him the nickname “Gentleman Giant” and “the giant of Illinois.”

Like any teenager, Robert had an appetite, consuming 8,000 calories each day. His feet seemed to be too large, even for him. With a shoe size of 37AA, shoes were not easy to find but he was able to get them custom-made from International Shoe Company. They were expensive, costing more than $100 so he at age 20 he became a goodwill ambassador for the company in exchange for getting his shoes for free.

Robert eventually clocked more than 300,000 miles on his goodwill tour, visiting more than 800 towns and 41 states. In order to accommodate his large frame, his dad modified the family’s car, removing the front passenger seat so he could sit in the back seat and stretch out his long legs.

A trip to Virginia for an ad campaign in November 1939 resulted in a unique gift. The president of Galax Furniture Co., C.L. Smith, saw how uncomfortable Robert was while sitting in a normal-sized chair so he had one designed and built especially for him. It was made of black walnut and southern red gum wood and covered in 11 yards of wine-colored brocatelle. The original is displayed in the Franklin Masonic Lodge in Upper Alton.

All this time, Robert was continuing to grow. By the time he was 22, he was 8’11”and weighed 490 pounds. Because of his size, his bones were brittle and he wasn’t able to walk without leg braces and a cane. He also wasn’t able to feel his feet and this led to his death.

On a trip to Manistee, Michigan, his foot became infected from a blister caused by an improperly fitted leg brace. He had emergency surgery and blood transfusions but the infection spread and he died in his sleep on July 15, 1940 at age 22.

Robert Wadlow was buried in a specially designed casket that was placed in a 12-foot long reinforced concrete tomb in Upper Alton Cemetery. His gravestone simply reads “At Rest.” More than 40,000 people signed the guest register.

When Robert died in 1940, his family had nearly all his belongings destroyed because they didn’t want his personal items to be on display as “freak” memorabilia.

In 1985, a statue was erected in a small park across from the old Shurtleff College he once attended. A replica of his chair was added later.

Robert Wadlow's Growth Chart

Age
Height in feet/inches
Weight in pounds
Birth
NA
8.7
6 months
NA
30
18 months
NA
62
5 years
5' 6"
105
8
6' 2"
195
10
6' 5"
200+
13
7' 4"
NA
22
8'11"
490
 
 
 

Alton IL

A marker2800 College Avenue Alton, IL 62002 -
2800 College Avenue, Alton, IL 62002, USA
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Comments 12 comments

homesteadpatch profile image

homesteadpatch 5 years ago from Michigan

That is simply incredible.


Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois Author

It is, and a little sad. Thanks for reading


Sheri Wellen 5 years ago

My grandfather had film footage of him visiting "Peter's shoe store" in Colorado. I donated it to the Wadlow museum in Alton.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is a very interesting story, Danette, and the photos illustrate Robert Wadlow's huge height very well. It's great to read that he was such a nice man despite his physical problems.


Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois Author

Hey Sheri! Email me and let me know how you are doing. I didn't make it across the street to the museum b/c I was working that day, waiting for Oktoberfest to start.

@ AliciaC - Thanks for reading and commenting. I hadn't planned to have myself in the photos but saw a couple of young women there who were able to take the pictures for me. They definitely say more than words can.


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

Wow, what a fascinating story and all part of the Alton Town History - who knew? Thanks for sharing. Voted up BTW Great photos; really makes the point.


Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois Author

Ha,Dee, there is actually quite a bit of history in this little old town, a lot of it civil war related, so watch for some hubs about that! LOL Yes, the photos definitely illustrate his height.


Eloise Hope profile image

Eloise Hope 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon, USA

What an interesting story! I hope he wasn't lonely - sounds like a bit of a difficult life, in many ways. Every kid feels odd, even those of average height. I can't imagine how things must have been for him. Hard to blend in at over eight feet! Thank you for a memorable story.


Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois Author

Hi Eloise, Yes, that was my thought as well. From what I've read, he had many friends and was treated well by classmates and such. But I think if I had a child who was odd like this, I would feel sad for him.


fdrec 4 years ago

he is huge


mythicalstorm273 profile image

mythicalstorm273 4 years ago

I have read about him before. I always find the idea of these 'giants' as very interesting and yet very sad. I love the fact that he continued to embrace life instead of letting it affect him in a negative manner. It really is in inspiring story!


Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 4 years ago from Illinois Author

Thanks for reading mythicalstorm273. It is a little sad, isn't it? You have to wonder how he and others like him felt about being so tall and why he was able to stay so positive while others might not have.

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