Alton’s history stands tall with monumental moments, but there are none taller than Alton’s very own “Gentle Giant” – Robert Wadlow. Like most first-time parents, Harold and Addie Wadlow eagerly awaited the birth of their first child. On February 22, 1918, in a little five-room cottage on Monroe St., Robert Wadlow was born, weighing an average eight pounds, six ounces. Though Robert was not your average infant, by the time he was six months old he weighed nearly 30 pounds. By 18 months, he had reached 67 pounds.
Why was Robert so tall?
What would account for such an incredible growth at such an early age? Robert was born with a pituitary gland disorder. Everyone has a pituitary, a pea-sized gland located at the base of the brain. The pituitary gland secretes a growth hormone. If a person receives inadequate amounts of secretions from the gland, they are likely to be a dwarf. If the gland oversupplies the body with growth hormone, the person may prove to be a giant. Well, Robert’s growth did not seem to slow down a bit.
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Age 5 - 1st Grade: 5-feet, 4-inches (105 pounds)
As he entered the classroom on that first day of school at age 5, Robert wore a suit that would have fit the average 17 year old.
Age 8: 6-foot (169 pounds)
It was not until Robert was 12 that doctors at Washington University School of Medicine maintained a record of his height and weight.
In all aspects of his life, Robert was your average young man. He was a member of the Young Men’s Christian Association, Boy Scouts of America, Order of DeMolay, Main Street Methodist Church and Franklin Masonic Lodge. He enjoyed collecting stamps, matchbooks and rocks, and he had even taken up photography.
Along with his rapidly increasing height, Robert’s feet grew quickly, too. His shoe size was 37AA, 18 ½ inches long and weighed more than four pounds. As he entered high school in 1932, he was also enrolled in the Lancaster School of Expression to assist with his public speaking and prepare him for a role as a representative for Peters Shoe Company - the company that made his very large shoes. The last shoes made for him were a size 40.
Age 17: 8-foot, 3 inches at high school graduation
On January 24, 1936, Robert graduated high school, towering above the other eighty-seven members of his class. His cap and gown had to be especially tailored using 14 yards of material.
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Post high school
In February 1936, Robert attended Shurtleff College for a semester and then took a break as he pondered what to do next. In April 1937, Robert signed a contract with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. He traveled nationwide, receiving top billing for his incredible height. Robert’s family had always been against making him a circus attraction, but financial hardship may have accounted for the difficult decision.
By July 1938, Robert and his father Harold began a tour westward to the Pacific Coast. As a representative for International Shoe Company, it would be the first of many tours for Robert and his father as he made personal appearances at shoe stores throughout the country. As a young man, he visited 800 towns in 41 states, logging nearly 300,000 miles in his short lifetime. Through his journeys, he had become quite a national celebrity.
Robert's special seat at Alton movie theater
Can you imagine walking down the street having to stoop to avoid awnings and light fixtures? At the movie theater, Robert usually had to sit in the back row. The theater in Alton made a special space for Robert in the front. He used five seats total – one to sit on, one for his left arm, one for his right, with his legs extended over the remaining two seats in front of him.
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On July 6, 1940, Robert became ill at a hotel in Manistee, Michigan while touring with his father. Chaffing from a brace worn on his ankle had caused a blister that eventually led to a serious infection. Robert was running a very high fever, and his mother and youngest brother, Harold Jr, flew to Michigan to see him. His temperature rose to 106-degrees, and Robert was never able to recover from the infection. On July 15, 1940, Robert died peacefully in his sleep.
Age 22: 8-foot, 11.1 inches (439 pounds)
At the age of 22, Robert was the tallest man in the world, reaching 8 feet, 11.1 inches tall and weighing 439 pounds.
Robert standing next to his dad.
More than 40,000 people came through the funeral home day and night for two days straight, sometimes waiting in lines nearly three blocks long. 10,000 people were present for the funeral services. All the businesses in Alton were closed for the funeral, and it is said that license plates from more than 36 states could be seen at the site. The 1,000 pound casket required twelve pallbearers, with an additional six to eight men to help from time to time on the way to the gravesite. Robert was laid to rest in the Upper Alton Cemetery, and the casket was sealed in a 12-foot long reinforced concrete tomb.
Robert Wadlow will also be remembered as Alton’s “Gentle Giant.” He was shy, friendly, respectable and tall in character. Today, you can see how you measure up to Wadlow at his life-size statue located on College Avenue. Robert is still on record as the World’s Tallest Man. In addition to the statue, you can sit in a bronze replica of a chair especially made for Waldow.
Across the street at the Alton Museum of History and Art, his legacy lives on through the Wadlow exhibit. Take some time to experience what life was like for Robert as you browse the numerous photographs and artifacts in the museum telling his giant story.