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.
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
Height in feet/inches
Weight in pounds
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