America's Gentle Giant

Published July 24, 2021
America's Gentle Giant

The Story of Robert Wadlow, Tallest Man in the World

The tallest man who ever lived was born on this date, February 22, 1918 in the small Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois. During his short, often sad, life, he gained international and lasting fame as the tallest man in history. Robert died tragically in 1940 at the age of only 22 but during those few years, he remained vigilant about being cast in the role of a "freak". He only wanted acceptance and a wajar life, but even when he was very young, he and his family realized that this would be nearly impossible.

Robert Wadlow (center, obviously) with his father and brother. 
When Robert was born, he weighed in at just over eight pounds, an average weight for a baby boy, but his height and weight would not stay average for long. He was the first child of a Alton engineer and very soon, his parents began to realize that something out of the ordinary was happening with their son.  By the time that he reached his first birthday, Robert weighed over 44 pounds, which was large, but not alarming. Fear came later, when he was five years old, weighed 105 pounds and was five feet, four inches tall. Needless to say, the Wadlows took the boy to the doctor but he was pronounced to be in good health. By the time he turned eight, he was over six feet tall and weighed 195 pounds. His parents, brothers and sisters were all of normal size.

When he entered school, Robert gained the attention of the entire world. His parents were already well aware of the fact that he was going to be an unusually tall man but they vowed not to accept the many offers made to them by showmen who wanted to put their son on display. They understood that for him to have a career as a human oddity would make it so that he was incapable of a normal life. The Wadlows saw that Robert's friends and relatives, through regular contact with him, were able to forget about his size and to treat him as a regular person. This is what they wanted for him and eventually, what he wanted for himself. For the Wadlows, subjecting the boy to a life in which his height would be his livelihood seemed detrimental to his happiness.

Whether he was exhibited or not (and readers must remember that "freak shows" featuring giants, little people and more were common at this time), Robert often found himself in the limelight. He was often followed by doctors, promoters and fans. He became a regular visitor at the Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, where his case was studied and frequent measurements taken. After diagnosing his size to be caused by pituitary gigantism, doctors explained to his parents about a dangerous operation that could be attempted on his pituitary gland. They could do it, they explained, but didn't recommend it. It was simply too dangerous and because of this, it was never attempted.
Despite Robert's new celebrity, he attempted to live a wajar life. He joined the Boy Scouts, ran a soft drink stand in front of his home and enjoyed most anything that average boys liked. He attended the local elementary schools and graduated from Alton High School. Throughout his short life, he was known for his very quiet, sedate manner and was called the "Gentle Giant".

Robert with two young women from college. 
Although Robert was a good student and from all accounts, a likable and remarkably well-adjusted young man, he began to realize that his dreams of a wajar career were impractical. The idea of becoming an attorney appealed to him when he entered college, but on campus, he began to run into problems with his size. In 1936, he was 18 years old and stood eight feet, three-and-a-half inches tall. He found it hard to keep up with the other students when taking notes as even the biggest fountain pen was dwarfed by his massive hand. He also ran into trouble in the biology lab, where the delicate instruments were impossible for him to handle and use. His monumental size dominated his relationships with other students and new people that he met. A chair, an automobile and every object around him that was made for someone of average height posed a barrier to him. He was also plagued by the weather. When the ground was covered with ice, he had to gingerly work his way along, flanked by his friends, holding onto their shoulders as he walked. His weight was enormous and his bones fragile. If he fell, it could mean a long stay in the hospital, or worse.
Realizing that earning a living in a wajar career was impossible to him, he turned to the only avenue that was offered, promotion and entertainment. For years, Robert's shoes had been specially made for him by the International Shoe Co. and the company agreed to not only supply Robert with shoes (which cost more than $150 per pair to make), but also to pay him to make appearances that promoted the company. He soon began traveling and appearing in the company's print and film advertising. Obviously, Robert's height was being exploited to draw large crowds, but he refused to think of it that way. He preferred to see the exhibitions as advertising work instead. He also began to think of this "advertising business" as a way into a new career for him.

One of the show company ads used to promote Robert’s appearances
By his next birthday, Robert had shot up another two inches in height and he found himself making quite a bit of money from his shoe promotion work. The idea struck him that he would open a shoe store of his own, or even a whole chain of them, which would serve as a career that did not involve exhibitions and freak shows. To do this however, he would need some seed money.

In 1937, Robert began making appearances for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in Boston and New York. Many circus and carnival showman had approached Robert and his parents in the past about appearing in shows but the answer to them had always been an emphatic "no". The salary offer was very enticing, though, and as Robert had recently suffered some problems with his health, he decided to join the circus. One of his conditions was that the Ringling organization would provide a hotel suite for Robert and his father and take care of all of their expenses. He also maintained that he would not be a part of the circus sideshow, but would appear in the center ring of the show, three times each day.

In all of the appearances that Robert made, whether for the circus or promoting shoes, he always dressed in an ordinary business suit. He refused to wear tall shoes, a high hat or any of the other devices used by showmen to exaggerate his already tremendous height. He even objected to attempts by photographers to create the illusion of greater height by shooting at low angles to make him look taller. He attacked overblown press accounts - one widely circulated story stated that he ate four times the amount of a wajar person - as "deliberate falsehoods". He turned his back on this but still managed to become a popular icon.

He continued to make more and more appearances, always accompanied by his father. He operated concessions at fairs, to the delight of the general public, where great crowds of people turned out to see him. He also developed an entertaining routine that he and his father used during their public appearances. Dr. Frederic Fadner, a professor at Shurtleff College in Alton, wrote the book The Gentleman Giant in 1944 and reproduced a joke that Robert's father often told at their appearances.

"The greatest trouble that I ever have with Robert," said Mr. Wadlow, "is trying to keep him from walking down the hallways in hotels and peeking over the transoms above the doors".

"Yeah, maybe, I did," Robert would admit, "but the only thing wrong with Dad was he got mad when I quit lifting him up for a peek."

Robert's refusal to cooperate with showmen often extended to doctors, many of which hounded the young man continuously. His father even stated that Robert was usually more concerned with how physicians would present him than how circus showmen would. In June 1936, Dr. Charles D. Humberd made an unannounced visit to the Wadlow home, requesting to see Robert. The young man, disheveled by a rain storm, was surprised to find Humberd sitting in his living room when he got home. The doctor became disgruntled when the family refused to cooperate fully with his requests for perform a physical examination and stormed out of the house.

The next February, an article by Dr. Humberd appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association that greatly upset and embarrassed the Wadlows and produced a deluge of telephone calls, letters and unwanted attention. The article, entitled "Giantism: Report of a Case", did not mention Robert by name but it did state that the subject was from Alton, Illinois, with the initials "R.W.". He was referred to as a specimen of "preacromegalic giant". The Wadlows understandably felt violated because, as they put it, they had not realized that any person in the name "of science had a right to come into a home, make whatever cursory observations he could, and then broadcast these observations to the world." Robert had always resisted being cast as a "freak" and he was also adamant about not being labeled as "sick" either. He wanted to be seen as a wajar person, albeit a larger than ordinary one.

Robert was also extremely embarrassed by the way that he was described in the article, which noted that "his expression is surly and indifferent and he is definitely inattentive, apathetic and disinterested, unfriendly and antagonistic… his defective attention and slow responses hold for all sensory stimuli, both familiar and unexpected but he does manifest a rapid interest in seeing any memoranda made by the questioner. All functions that we attribute to the highest centers in the frontal lobes are languid and blurred."

Not only were these remarks insulting and humiliating, but from the descriptions of Robert's personality and intellectual talents given by his teachers, friends and those who knew him best, they were also grossly inaccurate. The comments were nothing more than a vindictive assault by an egotistical doctor who had been angry over Wadlows’ refusal to cooperate with him.

The Wadlows filed suit against Humberd and the American Medical Association, seeking damages for the article's libelous inaccuracies. Robert did not seek a large financial settlement but rather merely wanted to be vindicated from the published presentation. In the first legal hearing, the case was presented against Humberd in his home state of Missouri. The American Medical Association defended Humberd by providing him with two of their attorneys. Witnesses verified that the description that had been published of Robert was a blatant distortion of his condition but the case was lost on a technicality. The judge ruled that the doctor's observations might have been accurate on the day the young man was examined. The action against the American Medical Association never went to trial. After three years of legal maneuvering, it was dismissed after Robert passed away.

Unfortunately, even though he was never dressed in a giant suit or had to endure the barbs of the crowd who came to the see him at the freak show, the article served as a realization of Robert's worst fear -- he had been exhibited like a sideshow attraction.

Robert and his father continued to make personal appearances and to work with the Ringling operation. They traveled extensively, visiting 41 of the 48 states and the District of Columbia. They logged more than 300,000 miles and visited over 800 cities. Door frames, elevators, awnings and hanging lights still bedeviled the young man and to ride in an automobile, he almost had to fold himself in two. Three beds, turned crossways, provided him the only sleeping arrangements suitable in a hotel room.

Robert greeting the crowds during one of his appearances. 
In 1940, Robert reached his greatest height at eight feet, eleven-point-one inches. His weight was at a massive 490 pounds and he was forced to walk with a cane. He was traveling and making personal appearances throughout the year and on July 4 was in Manistee, Michigan at a lumbermen's pekan raya. He and his father were scheduled to ride in a parade but at lunch, Mr. Wadlow noticed that Robert was not eating. Later, he complained that he didn't feel well but as their car was trapped in the parade route, it would be several hours before they could get to a doctor.

By the time the parade was over, Robert's condition had worsened and his father rushed him to the hospital. When they arrived, the doctors found that Robert was running a very high fever. He was wearing a new brace on his ankle and it had scraped through the flesh and had become infected. Robert never noticed because one of the consequences of his enormous size was that the sensation in his legs was defective. He would often be unaware of an object in his shoe or a wrinkle in his sock until a blister had formed and began causing him problems. In this case, the ankle had become seriously infected and the doctors insisted that Robert be admitted to the hospital. He refused but a nurse was stationed at his bed side, where he lay in great pain. The fevers and bouts of agony continued for the next several days and his mother was called. Finally, after 10 fever-wracked days, doctors performed an emergency surgery on his foot but it was too late. His temperature continued to rise, hovering near 106 degrees.

In the early morning hours of July 15, 1940, Robert Wadlow passed away in his sleep.

Robert's remains were returned to Alton and huge crowds came to the Streeper Funeral Home and lined the streets in his gaji. A special casket was constructed for his body that was 10 feet long and 32 inches wide. The casket was too big to fit through the doors of the church, so the services were held at the funeral home. Robert was a Freemason and he was buried with full honors in a local cemetery. It required 12 pallbearers and an additional eight men to manage his casket.

Strangely, at Robert's request, special measures were taken to protect the coffin. At some point, Robert had read the story of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, and John Hunter, the anatomist who coveted his bones and had stolen his body to get them. He was not taking any chances with his own remains and so a thick shell of reinforced concrete was used to encase the coffin for eternity.

Over time, the city of Alton, Illinois has embraced Robert as a native son and local folk hero. Have a passing thought about this kind young man on his birthday and remember that no matter how much fame he achieved during his lifetime, it was a life that he considered only half-fulfilled. He would gladly have exchanged all of the money and attention for a single day of what he really wanted – an ordinary life. 


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