The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Fast-Acting Long-Lasting Bathroom Reader.
You may think being the tallest guy in the room's a great thing. Here’s the story of a man who probably wouldn’t agree.
On February 22, 1918, Addie Wadlow gave birth to an 8.5 pound baby boy in the town of Alton, Illinois. She and her husband, Harold, named him Robert.
The boy was normal-sized at birth, but he didn’t stay that way for long: by the time he was six months old, he weighed 30 pounds (twice as much as a typical six-month-old weighs). By 18 months, he weighed 62 pounds. In the first two years of Robert’s life, his parents -and apparently even his doctors- didn’t think there was anything particularly odd about his rapid growth. They just thought he was a naturally big kid who was growing earlier than most kids. Sooner or later, they figured, his growth would slow down and his peers would catch up.
That notion could not have lasted long. By the time Robert was five years old, he stood 5’4” tall, just seven inches shorter than his father, and wore clothing made for a 17-year-old. He passed his father in height before he turned eight, and by nine Robert could carry his father up the stairs of the family home.
What was it that caused Robert to grow at such an astonishing rate? Ironically, it was caused by one of the smallest organs in the human body: the pituitary gland, a pea-sized organ located in the center of the skull, just beneath the brain. Robert’s pituitary gland was producing too much growth hormone. Today pituitary abnormalities can be treated with surgery and hormone therapy, but in the early 1920s things were different. When Robert was 11, a doctor told the family that attempting such surgery would probably kill the boy, so the Wadlows gave up on that idea and focused on giving their son a normal a childhood as possible.
THE BIG TIME
As a young boy, Robert naturally turned heads wherever he went. (He once terrified a department store Santa when he ran after him to tell him what he wanted for Christmas.) But he remained virtually unknown outside the small community of Alton until 1927, when he visited St. Louis with his father and caught the eye of some newspaper reporters. The reporters measured and weighed the third-grader (he was 6’ 2.5” and weighed 180 pounds) and published several photos in the Globe-Democrat.
The pictures were picked up by the Associated Press and published in newspapers all over the country, and Robert became one of the most famous kids in the United States. Visitors began trekking to Alton in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the world’s biggest little boy. People would park their cars outside his elementary school just to watch him walk home from school. When he passed their car, they’d drive down a few hundred feet, park the car, and watch Robert walk by again. Some people followed him all the way home.
From his earliest memories, Robert towered over his peers -he never knew people his own age who were his size. By the start of his teenage years he’d grown taller than all of the adults he knew. By his mid-teens, Robert entered a new phase of his life: he literally began to outgrow the world around him. Until then his hobbies had included photography and playing the guitar, but his hands grew so large that operating a camera or playing his favorite instrument became impossible.
By his 16th birthday, Robert stood more than 7’ 10” tall and weighed 370 pounds, making him the tallest person in the United States. Even the largest-sized clothing didn’t fit him anymore; from now on everything he wore had to be tailor-made, using three times as much cloth as normal-sized clothing. His shoes had to be made by hand, too (the machinery that mass-produced footwear was designed to make shoes only up to about a size 15, and Robert’s feet would one day top out at a size 37). And because Robert’s feet never stopped growing, he had to order his shoes a few sizes too large so they would fit by the time they arrived.
(Image credit: Doug Coldwell)
TAKING ITS TOLL
Robert’s rapid, uncontrollable growth was more of a handicap than you might think: he needed to take long walks and participate in regular exercise to keep up the muscle strength that supported his enormous frame. But his rapidly growing bones couldn’t get all the calcium they needed, so they were weak and prone to injury. He didn’t have much sensation in his feet, either, which made walking more difficult. As Robert got older, his body became increasingly frail and unsteady; falls became more dangerous. By his late teens he was walking with a cane.
When Robert entered college in 1936 at the age of 18, he was 8’ 3.5” tall and less than an inch away from becoming the tallest person in recorded history. Rather than walk to school as he had in high school, he now had to take a cab. Too large to sit upright in a normal-sized seat, he had to crouch on his hands and knees across the backseat. When he arrived at school, he shoved one leg backward out the door, then the other, and backed his way out of the cab.
IF THE SHOE FITS
College proved to be too much of an ordeal for Robert. He could not sit at a normal desk. Fountain pens were tiny and unwieldy in his hands, making note-taking during lectures almost impossible. He had trouble working the microscope in his biology class and drawing diagrams of the organisms he was studying in his lab notebook. Even going up and down stairs was a challenge- Robert’s 18-inch long feet were too big to fit on the steps. And because he didn’t fit in -literally- with the other students, he was frequently lonely.
Robert finished his first year of college but didn’t return for a second. Instead, he decided to open a shoe store. To do that he needed money, of course, and he knew how to get it: in the past he and his dad had made occasional promotional tours for the International Shoe Company. Now that Robert was finished with school, he talked his dad into quitting his job and traveling with him full-time until he had enough money to open his own shoe store in Alton.
By now Robert was so large that travel by train or airplane was pretty much out of the question -sure, if the railroad or the airline agreed to remove a row or two of seats, there might be room enough for Robert to sit, but he could no longer squeeze himself into the tiny train and plane bathrooms. So he and his dad bought a car that was big enough to seat seven people, ripped out the middle row of seats, and hit the road -Dad did the driving, and Robert sat in the back (he was too tall to drive).
In the summer months, Robert made appearances in northern states; in the winter, Robert and his dad headed south. They would stay out for a few weeks at a time, typically visiting two towns every day. Robert drew huge crowds wherever he went, and it soon proved to be impractical to greet so many people inside the shoe stores. So they began working with an advance man who arranged for either a large truck or a platform to be set up outside each store.
Most of the people who came to see Robert were polite, but he had to put up with the same old jokes (“How’s the weather up there?”) at every stop, and some people even pinched his legs through his trousers or kicked him in the shins to see if he were walking on stilts. Robert took it in stride -but if the pincher or kicker was wearing a hat (and nearly everyone did back in the 1930s), he playfully retaliated by by grabbing it and putting it someplace high where the person couldn’t easily get it back.
In all, Robert and his dad visited more than 800 towns in 41 different states between 1937 and 1940, traveling more than 300,000 miles in the process. On July 4, 1940, they were scheduled to ride in a parade in Manistee, Michigan. Robert wasn’t feeling well, but they decided to go ahead with the parade anyway.
The parade lasted more than two hours, and in that time Robert’s condition deteriorated until he could barely hold his head up. By the time he made it back to the hotel he had a fever of 101°F. The hotel doctor looked Robert over and found the source of the problem: an infected blister on Robert’s ankle, cause by a poorly-fitting brace. The brace had been fitted a few weeks earlier to strengthen his ankle. (By his early 20s, Robert had very little feeling left in his feet; if he had noticed the blister at all, he didn’t realize how serious it was.) When doctors couldn’t find a hospital nearby that was equipped to handle a patient as large as Robert -he was too big to fit in a hospital bed- they decided it would be better to treat him right there in the hotel room.
Over the next several days, the infection worsened and Robert’s condition deteriorated. Had it happened just a few years later, Robert could have been treated with penicillin and might have made a full recovery. But penicillin had not yet come into widespread use, and once an infection got established there was little that could be done to stop it. At 1:30 AM on the morning of July 15, Robert passed away in his sleep. At the time of his death, he was 8’11”, making him a full seven inches taller than the previous record holder, an Irishman who died in 1877.
He never did get to open his shoe store.
Robert’s body was returned to Alton, where it was buried in a 10’ 9”-long, 1,000-pound casket, carried by 12 pallbearers and eight assistants. The big man got a big send-off as every business in Alton shut down on the day of the funeral. More than 40,000 people filed past the casket before it was laid to rest.
If you’re lucky enough to find a shoe store that Robert Wadlow visited on one of his publicity tours, it might still have a pair of his shoes on display -he left a pair at every shop. And, if you visit Alton, Illinois, you can see his life-size bronze statue, erected in 1985. The town museum has a display of some of Robert’s personal possessions.
During his lifetime Robert resisted being exploited for his size, and he feared that his remains might be exploited, too. So before he died, Robert asked his father to do everything he could to prevent his body from being abused after his death. Accordingly, Harold Wadlow refused to allow a postmortem exam, and he had his son buried under eight inches of reinforced concrete to protect against grave robbers. The family also destroyed Robert’s clothing and most of his oversized personal possessions, to prevent them from being displayed in freak shows.
“We treated Robert after death just as he would have wanted us to,” biographer Frederic Fadner quotes Harold Wadlow saying in his book The Gentleman Giant. “I am sure that he died with complete confidence in us. We could not and did not betray that confidence after he was gone.”
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Fast-Acting Long-Lasting Bathroom Reader.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.
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