Big Beyond Belief


No, the picture above was not “photoshopped.” It is an un-retouched photo of Robert Pershing Wadlow, who was about age 20 at the time.

I don’t remember ever hearing of Robert Wadlow before today, although I’m not sure how I could have missed him. Not only was he the tallest man alive during his own lifetime—he was the tallest person in history to have totally verifiable records establishing his size! In other words, perhaps there were taller men in the past, but their reputations are based only on folklore, not on photos and documentation.

I seriously doubt that there have been very many men even in the far distant past taller than Robert—as he was almost 9 feet tall! (The current World’s Tallest Man as identified by the Guinness Book of World Records is “only” 8 feet, 3 inches tall.) As with most people with his malady—an overactive pituitary gland that just never stopped producing growth hormone—he died in his young adulthood, at age 22.  He was 8 feet, 11 inches at his death (and 439 pounds), and he had continued to grow taller right up to that point.

What is perhaps most amazing about this young man is that he lived a basically “normal” life in his youth in small town America, and was fully accepted by his peers!

Robert Wadlow was born in Alton, Illinois (just north of St. Louis on the Mississippi River) February 22, 1918. Normal-sized at birth (8 pounds, 6 ounces) his malfunctioning pituitary kicked in almost immediately.  He was already 6 feet tall at age 10, as you can see in his third grade picture here…

grade 3

…and in this picture with his dad at that age.

age 10

He had a fairly “normal” childhood up until age nine. Although so much larger than the other children, he joined in the regular activities of a child his age.

But by age nine, word had gotten out about the “giant boy” from Illinois. Reporters and photographers came and documented his story, spreading it eventually around the world. Back in the 20’s and ‘30s, “freak shows” were still big in circuses, and a number of offers came in to his family for him to earn money by being put “on display.” His parents would have none of that—even when times got really tight during the Depression. They wanted him to have as much a normal childhood as possible.

So he stayed at home and just kept growing (along with two younger sisters and two younger brothers). Here he is with his whole family in 1935, at age 17.

1935 familyHe joined the YMCA, taking part in swimming, basketball, stamp collecting, and camera club.  At 13, at 7 feet, 4 inches, and 270 pounds, he joined the Boy Scouts.

boy scoutHis uniform had to be custom made from 14 yards of material 3 feet wide.

During his high school years he did well in classes, and was popular and active in many extracurricular activities. By the time he graduated from high school, he was already over 8 feet tall, as can be seen in this graduation picture from 1936.

graduationIn 1937 after graduation he finally took advantage of an offer from the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus, and agreed to make public appearances at their engagements at Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden. He would only appear for three minutes twice a day, and NOT in some “side show.” He’d only make his appearances…dressed respectably in a nice suit…in the center ring.

The circus folks understood a major, major attraction—tallest man in history… *fully documented*!—when  they found one, and agreed fully to his demands.


By the next year, he had made an agreement to go on a promotional tour for the International Shoe Company (maker of “Peter’s Shoes”). By then his shoes, a size 37, cost $100 a pair (close to $1500 in today’s money!) The International Company provided him free shoes, and hired him as a highly-visible spokesperson.


His dad gave up his own job at an oil company, and went on the road with Robert. They visited 800 towns and 41 states.  Here he is in 1938 greeting famous movie actress Mary Pickford at the St. Louis Airport in 1938.

pickford 1938

During an appearance at the National Forest Festival in Manistee, Michigan, in July 1940, Robert ended up with an infection in his feet caused by blisters from the leg braces he had to wear in order to help support his great size. Medical care was not adequate back then to resolve the problem, and he died 11 days later, at the age of 22.

A crowd of over 40,000 paid their last respects at the visitation for his funeral, and 27,000 attended the actual funeral. He was remembered not just for his astonishing size, but loved and admired as a humble, cheerful “Gentle Giant.” As seen in this pic of him playing with his little brother Harold.


Click here to read more details and see more pics of this huge but humble young man

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