Robert Wadlow had big shoes to fill. Literally.
With a shoe size of 37AA, he was grateful for the deal he had with the International Shoe Company. which produced his shoes for free in exchange for Robert's duties as a goodwill ambassador for the company.
It was one of the few perks available to a nearly 9-foot-tall 20-year-old in the 1930s.
No one would have predicted Robert Wadlow's prodigious future growth when he entered the world on Feb. 22, 1918, the 8-pound 6-ounce first-born child of Harold and Addie Wadlow of Alton, Ill. But by the time Robert started walking a year later, he tipped the scales at a hefty 44 pounds.
The Wadlow family added four children over the next few years. All of Robert's siblings were of normal height and weight, but he continued to grow at an astonishing rate. At the age of five he already stood 5 1/2 feet tall. By age 8 he topped six feet and weighed nearly 200 pounds. His elementary school built a special desk for him.
Just before his 12th birthday, Wadlow was diagnosed with an overactive pituitary gland, a condition relatively easy to treat today but without a simple solution in 1930.
Wadlow tried to blend in with his peers, collecting stamps and taking up photography. But when Wadlow joined the Boy Scouts at age 13, it was obvious that his days of anonymity were over. At 7-feet 4-inches tall and weighing 270 pounds, Wadlow was soon known as the largest Boy Scout in history. Newsreel cameras and reporters flocked to Alton to report to the world about the young "Alton Giant," whose scout uniform took 14 yards of material to construct and who fueled his uncontrollable growth by eating 8,000 calories a day.
The newsreel cameras would be a nearly constant companion for the rest of Wadlow's life.
Wadlow's high school years were apparently without incident, although he did manage to participate in extracurricular activities and served as advertising manager for his school's yearbook. He graduated at mid-term in January 1936 and enrolled in Shurtleff College in Alton in hopes of becoming a lawyer.
But Wadlow, who had shot to over 8-foot tall and weighed nearly 400 pounds by his 18th birthday, dropped out after one semester. In June 1936, the Wadlow family was visited by Dr. C.D. Humberd, who wanted to write about Robert's condition. But the Wadlows found Dr. Humberd's demeanor to be so demanding and overbearing that they refused to let their son submit to a medical exam.
Undaunted, Dr. Humberd went ahead with his paper, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The Wadlow family was irate when Dr. Humberd described their son as a "pre-acromegalic giant," "surly and indifferent," and questioned his intellectual capacities. The Wadlows sued Dr. Humberd for libel, but lost in court.
Although the Wadlow family had fought hard to allow Robert to grow up as much out of the spotlight as possible, an offer to join the Ringling Brothers Circus proved too good to pass up. Insisting that Robert perform only in street clothes and only in center ring, they hoped to avoid the spectacle of their son being portrayed as a sideshow freak. His contract called for two appearances per day of three minutes each and only in Madison Square Garden in New York and Boston Garden.
Young Wadlow proved to be so popular he signed on with the International Shoe Company as a traveling goodwill ambassador. His father quit his job at an oil company and had the front passenger seat of the family Ford Model T removed so Robert could travel comfortably while resting in the back seat.
Harold Wadlow claimed that the pair covered more than 300,000 miles while visiting more than 800 towns in 41 states in their time on the road for the shoe company. Some sources use more modest figures, but there's no doubt that the travel was grueling for young Robert.
His rapid growth had left him with brittle bones and he rarely walked without leg braces and a cane. Although he enjoyed relatively good health as a youth, Wadlow had little feeling in his legs or feet as he grew older. Despite his serious mobility issues, Wadlow took pride in never resorting to a wheelchair.
On June 27, 1940, Wadlow's height was measured at 8 feet 11.1 inches at Washington University in St. Louis, a height still recognized by the Guiness Book of World Records as the World's Tallest Living Man.
One week later, Wadlow made an appearance in a parade in Manistee, Michigan, to mark the Manistee National Forest Festival on July 4. After spending four hours riding in the back of a truck on the hot, muggy day, Wadlow collapsed in his hotel room where he was treated in two beds placed end to end.
Doctors began treating a raging infection that had begun when a faulty brace irritated his ankle and caused a blister. Wadlow's condition was so severe that over the next 10 days, he underwent numerous transfusions and emergency surgeries. By July 14, he was getting nourishment from a feeding tube, his temperature was 106 degrees and he was described as being in "very grave" condition.
He died in his sleep the next day.
At the time of Wadlow's death he weighed 490 pounds and was said to be still growing. Rumors soon started circulating. His legs had been amputated one story went. His brain was sold to a scientist went another. Truth is, Wadlow went to his grave fully intact, without as much as an autopsy. The family cited Dr. Humberd's callous actions when defending their decision to not allow any post-morten examination of Wadlow's body.
Furthermore, the family desstroyed nearly all of Robert Wadlow's belongings because they didn't want him remembered as a "freak." One exception was several pairs of shoes which can still be viewed at various locations today.
It took 20 men to carry Wadlow's half-ton casket to his 12-foot-long reinforced concrete tomb in Oakwood Cemetery in Upper Alton, Illinois, where he was buried on July 19, 1940. More than 40,000 people signed the guest register for Alton's most famous citizen whose gravestone reads simply "At Rest."
Harold Wadlow teamed with Frederic Fadner, an English instructor at Shurtleff College, to publish a brief biography of Robert Wadlow entitled The Gentleman Giant in 1944. In 1985, a life-sized bronze statue of Wadlow was dedicated on the campus of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine in Alton.
In 2010, the Upper Alton Association initiated an annual summer concert series called "Rockin' With Robert" next to the Wadlow statue.
Wadlow's father, Harold, died on September 25, 1969, at age 76. His mother, Addie, died on Christmas Day, 1980, at age 83. They are buried next to their famous son.
Robert Pershing Wadlow
Born: February 22, 1918
Died: July 15, 1940 (age 22)