Sunday, May 25, 2008
Robert Pershing Wadlow
Street Parking Accessible Attraction
Robert Wadlow was a pituitary giant, someone who grows enormously due to an overactive pituitary gland. He was born in Alton, Illinois on February 22, 1918, a completely normal baby, 8 ½ pounds. However, by the time he was a year old he weighed twice normal, 44 pounds. By nine years he'd reached 6', 2", by sixteen he hit 7', 10", and weighed nearly 400 pounds. At the time of his death in 1940 he was 8', 11.1" tall and weighed 439 pounds making him the world’s tallest person in history, according to the Guinness Book of Records, surpassing the record previously held by an 8', 4" inch Irishman who died in 1877.
Robert was the first born of Addie and Harold Wadlow, who later had four other children. Despite Robert's size, all of his family members were of normal height and weight. He tried to maintain a normal life as a child. Robert enjoyed collecting stamps and matchbooks, joining the YMCA, and taking up photography. When he joined the Boy Scouts at age13, he became their tallest member at 7' 4". In 1936 Wadlow received a scholarship from Shurtleff College of Alton and planned to become an attorney. He found college life difficult due to his size. Pens and pencils were difficult for him to use. Lab instruments were a nightmare. He quit after one year mostly because he could scarcely walk in icy winter conditions and he had difficulty moving from building to building between classes. His bones were brittle, and a single fall could put him in the hospital.
At the age of 19 he joined the Ringling Brothers Circus and at age 20 he came a goodwill ambassador for the International Shoe Company. In a specially converted automobile Robert and his father made a goodwill tour of the West Coast. The company thereafter gave him complimentary size 37 shoes for which he had been paying $100!
While otherwise remarkably healthy, he did have considerable trouble with his big feet. He had little sensation in his feet and did not feel any chafing until blisters formed. While making an appearance at the National Forest Festival 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. On July 15th, after emergency surgery and blood transfusions, Robert passed away in his sleep.
His body was brought back to his hometown of Alton for burial two days later. The 1,000- pound casket required twelve pallbearers, assisted by eight other men. It was placed in a 12' long reinforced concrete tomb. Out of respect for Alton's "Gentle Giant," all city businesses closed for the funeral. Over 40,000 people attended the funeral and burial services. Robert's gravestone simply reads "At Rest." A life-size bronze statue of Wadlow was unveiled in 1985 on the grounds of SIUE’s Dental School. Wadlow's grave is in nearby Upper Alton Cemetery.