Robert Pershing Wadlow was born, educated and buried in Alton, Illinois. His height of 8' 11.1" qualifies him as the tallest person in history, as recorded in the Guinness Book of Records. At the time of his death he weighed 490 pounds.
Robert was born on February 22, 1918, and weighed a normal eight pounds, six ounces. He drew attention to himself when at six months old, he weighed 30 pounds. A year later at 18 months, he weighed 62 pounds. He continued to grow at an astounding rate, reaching six feet, two inches and 195 pounds by the time he was eight years old. (See growth chart)
His middle name, Pershing, was in honor of the World War I General Pershing, then commanding officer of the European conflict. Robert was the first born of Addie and Harold Wadlow. Later the Wadlow family grew with the addition of two sisters, Helen and Betty, and two brothers, Eugene and Harold Jr. Despite Robert's size, all of his family members (photo) were of normal height and weight.
Trying to maintain a normal life, Robert enjoyed collecting stamps, photography, and become the world's tallest Boy Scout at seven feet, four inches, when he was 13 years of age. Later he became a member of DeMolay and the Masons.
At age 18, he had reached eight feet, four inches tall, and weighed 390 pounds. His clothing required three times the normal amount of cloth, and his size 37 shoes cost $100.00 a pair (a lot of money back in the 1930's). Two years later his shoes were provided free by the International Shoe Company.
When he turned 20 Robert traveled for the shoe company, visiting over 800 towns and 41 states. His father had to modify the family car, removing the front passenger seat so Robert could sit in the back seat and stretch out his long legs. The father and son team traveled over 300,000 miles on their goodwill tour for the shoe company.
He established his place in the history books when he exceeded eight feet, four inches in 1937, surpassing the record previously held by an Irishman who died in 1877.
Robert was very fond of his mother Addie, and there was a quiet manner about him that earned him the title 'Gentle Giant'.
Robert's unique size was attributed to an over active pituary gland, which produced much higher than normal levels of growth hormone. Today's medical science can compensate for such problems - but in the 1920s there was no therapy available.
As a youth, Robert had enjoyed good health, but his large feet had troubled him for many years. He had little sensation in his feet and did not feel any chafing until blisters formed. While making an appearance in Manistee, Michigan in July 1940, a fatal infection set in when such a blister formed. On July 4th, doctors had Robert confined to a hotel bed, unable to find suitable accommodations at the local hospital. Days later, after emergency surgery and blood transfusions, the infection lingered and his temperature continued to rise. At 1:30 a.m., on the 15th of July, Robert Wadlow passed away in his sleep.
Robert's body was brought back to his home town of Alton for burial. The 1,000-pound casket required a dozen pallbearers, assisted by eight other men. Out of respect for Alton's Gentle Giant, all city businesses closed for the funeral. Over 40,000 people signed the guest register. Robert's gravestone simply reads "At Rest." Robert Wadlow holds a special place in Alton's history. He is remembered as a quiet young man who overcame a unique handicap, and who was an inspiration to all of those that knew him.
In 1984 a citizens committee organized efforts to immortalize Robert, and in 1985 a bronze statue (photo), was erected on the campus of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine. Upon Robert's death in 1940, his family had almost all of his belongings destroyed. They did not want collectors to obtain his clothes or personal items, and be displayed as 'freak' memorabilia. We want to continue to honor their wishes, and are displaying what items we have in our museum with pride and dignity.
1918 - Robert was born February 22, 1918 to Harold F. and Addie (Johnson) Wadlow on Monroe Street in Alton, Illinois, weighing 8.7 pounds.
1919 - When Robert began to walk he weighed 40 lbs.
1920-1926 The family lived in Roxana, Illinois.
1923 - At 5 years of age, attending kindergarten, Robert was 5' 6 1/2" tall. He wore clothes that would fit a 17 year old boy.
1928 - Ten years old. Robert weighed 210 pounds and was 6' 5" tall. His shoes were size 17 1/2.
1929 - Robert takes his first airplane ride. Just before his 12th birthday Robert had his first checkup at Barnes Hospital (St. Louis), where the family learned of his over-active pituitary gland that caused his fantastic growth.
1929-1931 Robert sold magazines to earn money for a savings account. In 1931 the banks failed, and he lost his savings. He gave up the magazine business.
1931 - At the age of 13, and a member of the Boy Scouts, he was the largest Boy Scout in the world. His weight was 270 pounds, and his height was 7' 4". It took 14 yards of 36" wide material to make his Boy Scout uniform.
1933 - Robert received the largest birthday postcard ever delivered by the Alton Post Office. It measured 14" x 22". Robert attended the World's fair in Chicago. It took two turns and 20¢ to get Robert through the turnstile.
1935 - 1936 Robert became Advertising Manager of the Tatler - Alton High School Year Book. He graduated in the January class, 1936.
1936 - In February, Robert enrolled in Shurtleff College.
1937 - Robert and his father made an extensive trip west, including Hollywood and most of the western states, as a goodwill ambassador for International Shoe Company. Thereafter, the firm made his shoes free of charge.
1940 - Robert Wadlow died July 15, 1940. His weight was 490 pounds, his height was 8' 11.1". He was buried July 19, 1940 in Upper Alton Cemetery.
Boy Scout camp - Standing with troup - (1931?)
Photo courtesy of R. O'Brien
Boy Scout camp - Standing with J. Grason - (1931?)
Photo courtesy of R. O'Brien
Robert standing next to his brother 1936 *
Seated, with brothers and sisters - 1936 *
High School Graduation - 1936 Class Photo *
Sitting in his oversize chair, with his mother at his side - 1939 *
Standing in hallway, almost reaching the ceiling - 1939 *
Pinning flower on father at DeMolay ceremony - 1939 *
Robert entering his car during a visit to Viroqua, WI. 1939.
Photo courtesy of E. McKay Portrait - 1939 *
Memorial Statue - Located on College Avenue in Alton, Illinois.
All photos are B/W JPEG, and average 18k in file size. All photos and text are copyright to the Alton Museum of History and Art or their respective donors and cannot be used in any form without written permission. * Photos copyrighted to the Telegraph.
"The Gentleman Giant" a biography of Robert P.Wadlow by Fredrick Fadner, is now available from the Museum. Please see the Gift Shop Page for details.
If any of our visitors remember Robert, and perhaps have some pictures or other memorabilia, please contact us. There is a separate room in our local museum dedicated to him, and we are seeking additional photos, newspaper articles or other historical items that people may have collected through the years. Robert toured the entire country, and we hope that some people may have memories of him that they would like to share.
The Alton Museum of History and Art is located on the campus of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine, on College Avenue in Alton, Illinois.
We would like to thank Robert Graul and the The Telegraph for their cooperation and assistance on this project. Photos from the Telegraph taken by Robert Graul.