by Krystie Morrison
Alton, Ill. is known for its rich history that includes stories of Elijah P. Lovejoy, the Underground Railroad, the Piasa Bird and also the world’s tallest man, Robert Pershing Wadlow.
Robert Wadlow is a native Altonian and was born to Addie and Harold Wadlow in 1918. At the time of birth he appeared to be normal in every way. However, when Wadlow turned six months his parents started to notice a change in their young son. His growth rate was vastly different than other children at the age of six months because of an overactive pituitary gland. His weight at the time would turn out to be a whopping thirty pounds. Twice the normal weight for a six month old child. By the time Robert would turn eight, he would weigh in at 195 pounds and stand six feet and two inches.
Robert endured a semi-normal childhood despite his unusual height. At the age of nine, he started to gather the unwanted attention of the press. Despite the attention, he still enjoyed photography, stamp collecting and he even joined the Boy Scouts at the age of 13. At that time, Wadlow had grown to an astonishing height of seven feet and four inches which made him the world’s tallest Boy Scout.
Just like every young child, Robert Wadlow had a dream for what his life would be like in the future. He wanted to become a lawyer and he was determined to reach his goal. Unfortunately he began to realize that his enormous stature would affect how the judge and jury would react to him in court. Wadlow decided to no longer pursue a career in law because of this reason.
As Robert grew taller, his health began to decline. He needed to wear leg braces in order to support his large frame at eight feet tall. Occasionally he had to lean on family members and friends just to be able to walk. A common symptom that occurs because of an overactive pituitary gland is loss of sensation below the knees, this would ultimately cause serious infections in his feet because he could not feel when he was injured.
When Robert turned 18, he had measured in at 8 feet, 4 inches and wore a size 37AA shoe. He was able to strike a deal with the International Shoe Company as their spokesperson and they would provide shoes that fit him in return. Wadlow and his father began traveling across the country to promote the shoe company. Harold Wadlow had to modify the family vehicle in order for Robert to fit a little more comfortably; he removed the front passenger seat so Robert could stretch his legs out a little.
This new venture inspired Robert to open his own line of shoe stores. To raise funds to reach his goal he agreed to work for Barnum and Bailey’s circus for a short period of time. Wadlow had strict rules for working with Barnum and Bailey; he would not wear the tall hats and shoes that most circus giants wore and he also did not want to be photographed at an angle that would exaggerate his height. Unfortunately, Robert would never see his new dream come to life.
In the summer of 1940, at the age of 22, Robert Wadlow was supposed to ride in the parade celebrating the Fourth of July. He woke up feeling ill that morning, but proceeded to ride in the parade. He complained to his father about a fever and this immediately concerned Harold Wadlow. He decided to examine Robert’s feet and discovered that his leg brace was cutting into his flesh and created a very serious infection. The next day doctors had confined Wadlow to strict bed rest. After a few days, the infection became even worse and Wadlow was rushed into emergency surgery where he was given blood transfusions. Despite this, his temperature continued to increase.
On July 15, 1940, Robert Pershing Wadlow passed in his sleep at the young age of 22. At the time of his death, Wadlow measured in at eight feet and eleven inches making him the tallest man who ever lived. He was taken back to Alton to be buried in his hometown. Over 40,000 people attended his funeral and all of the businesses in Alton closed their doors that day to honor the fallen giant. The casket that he was buried in was sealed with steel cables and cement and required twelve pallbearers.
His gravestone simply reads, “At Rest.”