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LONELY AT THE TOP: The Life of Robert Wadlow, the World's Tallest Man
When Robert Pershing Wadlow was born in Alton, Illinois on February 22, 1918 weighing 8 pounds, 6 ounces, he appeared to be a normal healthy child in every way. A respectful, quiet lad, Robert seemed ideally suited to the goodhearted family that Addie and Harold Wadlow were raising. If all had remained as it seemed at his birth, Robert Wadlow would probably lived out his life in relative obscurity as a fine lawyer in a small Midwestern town.
But when Robert was six months old, his parents noticed that there was something different about their son. Where most babies at six months weighed between 7 and 14 lbs, Robert tipped the scales at a whopping 30 lbs. A year later, 18-month-old Robert weighed 62 lbs. By the time he was eight years old, he weighed 195 lbs and stood 6 feet 2 inches tall.
Addie and Harold were determined to protect their son from unkind attention, and they did all that they could to give him as normal a life as possible. Robert was a good student in school and was well-liked by his classmates. He enjoyed the usual boyhood pursuits: photography and stamp collecting, and at the age of 13, when he measured 7 feet 4 inches, he became the world's tallest Boy Scout.
But when you're head and shoulders above the crowd, it's hard not to be noticed. By the time he was nine, the press had started taking an interest in him. The Wadlows began a battle to keep their son from being exploited that would continue for the rest of his life. One rainy night a man claiming to be a doctor appeared unannounced on the Wadlow's doorstep, invited himself in, and proceeded to ask Robert a number of embarrassing, intrusive questions. The report this so-called doctor published made Robert out as a freak, calling him 'slow-moving and thick-witted.' The Wadlow family sued, but lost.
The taller Robert grew, the harder his body had to work to maintain itself. A common symptom of the overactive pituitary gland, which caused Robert's tremendous growth, was a loss of sensation below the knees. Medically speaking, the impulses from the nerves in his lower extremities had to travel so far to reach his brain that the taller he grew, the fainter the signals became. Robert's explanation was simply that his legs were growing 'too fast for the nerves to keep up.' As Robert continued to grow, the signals from his lower legs and feet grew dimmer and dimmer, until he could hardly feel them at all.
Robert became prone to injuring his feet. Because he could not feel them, even minor blisters and chafing often became seriously infected. By the time he had grown to 8 feet tall, Robert needed leg braces in order to suport his massive frame. He often had to lean on family and friends in order to walk.
Robert's dream was to become a lawyer. He was determined not to allow his unusual height to stand in his way. After he finished high school, Robert began studying law. But after a while he began to realize that his huge size would affect the way a judge and jury would react to him in court.
At age 18, Robert measured 8 feet 4 inches, and wore a size 37AA shoe. Two years later, he struck a deal with the International Shoe Company: he would become their spokesman; they would provide his shoes for free. Robert and his father began traveling across the country, promoting International's shoes. Harold modified the family car to fit Robert. He removed the front passenger seat so that Robert had room for his long legs.
Father and son traveled to over 800 towns and 41 states. Robert enjoyed working for the shoe company. He decided that instead of towering over his clients in courts of law, he would open his own chain of shoe stores. In order to raise the money to start his own shoe company, Robert agreed to hire himself out for a short time with Barnum and Bailey's circus. He refused to wear the tall hats and the platform shoes most circus giants wore, and he would not allow anyone to photograph him from an angle that exaggerated his height.
In the summer of 1940, when Robert was 22, he was scheduled to ride in a 4th of July parade. That morning, Robert fell ill and had no appetite. During the parade, Robert complained of a fever. His father was immediately concerned; Robert almost never complained about anything. When Harold examined his son's feet, he discovered that one of Robert's braces was cutting into his flesh. A massive infection had set in. Robert had not felt a thing.
On July 4, doctors confined Robert to bed. He was placed in a hotel bed, because local hospitals had no beds that would fit him. A few days later, Robert's infection had worsened. He was rushed into surgery and given blood transfusions, but his temperature continued to rise. At 1:30 AM on July 15, 1940, Robert died in his sleep. He was taken home to Alton to be buried. On the day of his funeral, all of Alton's businesses closed their doors. 40,000 people attended the funeral. His casket required 12 pallbearers. His grave was sealed with steel cables and cement, as protection against any who might try to steal his remains. His gravestone simply read, "At Rest."
When Robert died at age 22, he measured 8 feet, 11 inchesthe tallest man who ever lived. He exceeded the previous record of an 8 feet 4 inch Irishman who had died in 1877. But those who knew Robert would not only remember him for his height. Because of his quiet, affectionate manner and his generous, uncomplaining nature, Robert was dubbed the "Gentle Giant" of Alton. During his lifetime, he gained many loyal fans and friends across the country, and was even affectionately dubbed "Tall Pine" by a neighboring Native American tribe. In 1984, the town of Alton erected a bronze statue in his honor.
Excerpted from The World of Ripley's Believe It or Not! Copyright (c) 1999 by Ripley Entertainment Inc. Reprinted with permission by BD&L Publishers, Inc.