Biography of Tallest Man in the World Robert Wadlow Part 2

About the world's tallest man Robert Wadlow, biography and history of the American giant.


ROBERT WADLOW (1918-1940). Giant.

After he had had a series of foot injuries, doctors advised Wadlow to walk a lot to build up his strength; however, walking actually further damaged his arches. Getting around on foot was painful and dangerous. He started attending Shurtleff College in his hometown in hopes of becoming a lawyer, but he dropped out largely because walking between classrooms was too difficult. In the end his foot problems killed him. At 22 he was fitted with an ankle brace. Within a week it had cut into his ankle, causing an infection his overtaxed nervous system failed to detect. By the time the illness was diagnosed, it had advanced too far to halt. He died in Michigan on July 15, 1940.

Wadlow's life was not unrelievably sorrowful. He was intelligent, and he was fortunate in that his parents determined to make his life as normal as possible. He pursued the typical avocations of boyhood: hobbies, sports, Boy Scouts. He was also an avid reader. During his last years he traveled widely throughout the U.S. and mingled with the famous. Despite his inevitable self-consciousness, he impressed everyone he met with his charm and perceptivity. The unfolding tragedy of his inexorable growth was as obvious to him as to those around him, but he remained cheerful and positive to the end, never giving in to the gloom which typically afflicts pathological giants. His father--the mayor of Alton--became his closest companion and helped him steer his way through the web of publicity which complicated his last years.

The news media weren't aware of Wadlow until he was nine, when the Associated Press discovered his picture in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and circulated his photograph around the country. From that point on, however, Wadlow was a public person, beset by a never-ending stream of journalists, medical researchers, would-be entrepreneurs, and ordinary curiosity-seekers. Each time he celebrated a birthday, newspaper reporters converged on him, and he appeared regularly in newsreels. Theatrical agents pressured him with their lavish offers for his services, but his parents rejected almost every opportunity to cash in on his size. There were two notable exceptions, and both worked out well for him. From the age of 12, Wadlow had had all his shoes specially made by the Peters Shoe Co. of St. Louis. Soon the company was paying Wadlow to wear its shoes and make occasional public appearances. After Wadlow quit college, he traveled more and more for this company, hoping some day to go into the shoe business on his own. Accompanied by his father, he drove more than 300,000 mi. around the U.S. on behalf of Peters Shoes.

In 1937 Wadlow worked briefly for Ringling Brothers Circus in New York and Boston. The conditions of his contract were strict. He made only two 3-minute, center-ring appearances, wearing ordinary street clothes, and he absolutely refused to have anything to do with the sideshow. (He also appeared for churches and charities without recompense.) His only other attempts to profit from his size were selling soft drinks at state fairs during summer vacations and selling autographed pictures to help buy a new pipe organ for the Methodist Church in Alton.

In 1936 a small-town Missouri doctor interested in giantism visited Wadlow to study his condition. The doctor saw him for less than an hour at one of his low points and then published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association which described Wadlow as dull and surly. In order to vindicate his character, Wadlow's family took legal action against the doctor and the journal, but the proceedings dragged on unsatisfactorily until Wadlow's death. The AMA's heavy legal efforts to defend its vituperative member disillusioned Wadlow, who had voluntarily put up with much from doctors all his life. Partly for this reason he wanted his body kept out of the hands of scientists. There was no postmortem examination, and he was buried intact in a custom-built, 10-ft.-long casket in an almost impregnable tomb in his hometown. Over 46,000 people paid their respects at the funeral home.

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