Humankind has always been fascinated by extremes: As a result, the record for the Tallest man (ever) has been featured in almost every edition of the Guinness World Records book since its first edition was published in 1955.
These were the words of Norris and Ross McWhirter, the founders of Guinness World Records, in 1955 before going on to dismiss the likes of Og, King of Bashan at 9 Assyrian cubits (494.03 cm; 16 ft 2.5 in) due to “confusion of units” from the Bible.
The twins then named Robert Wadlow as the tallest man “of whom there is irrefutable evidence”.
When last measured on 27 June 1940, the mild-mannered American stretched a staggering 2.72 m (8 ft 11.1 in) tall.
Perhaps surprisingly, Robert entered the world no differently to most babies. He was born 100 years ago on 22 February 1918 to two regular-sized parents, weighing an unremarkable 8.7 pounds.
But he rapidly started to shoot up, reaching an incredible 1.63 m (5 ft 4 in) by the age of five, and quickly had to wear clothes intended for teenagers.
Toddler in teenager’s clothing
Aged eight, he overtook his 5 ft 11 in tall father, Harold F Wadlow, and towered over his four younger siblings.
When most children were still being carried by their parents, Robert was able to lift his father up the stairs of their family home.
Robert’s incredible height caused a number of medical issues, which worsened as he grew older – and taller.
Yet as a young boy he tried his hardest to get involved in the same activities his peers were doing. For example, he became a Boy Scout at the age of 13, and had a customised uniform, tent and sleeping bag.
Robert passed the 2.45 m (8 ft 0.5 in) mark by the age of 17, making him – unsurprisingly – the Tallest teenager (ever).
In 1936, the gentle giant graduated from high school and enrolled in college with the intention of studying law.
However, later that year he would embark on a tour with the hugely popular Ringling Brother Circus, which saw the giant earn worldwide fame.
When asked in a radio interview if he was annoyed when people stared at him, he calmly replied, “No, I just overlook them.”
The quiet, unassuming man took his newfound celebrity status in his stride, and used it to earn money from public appearances.
He also went on a promotional tour with the International Show Company (now INTERCO), which agreed to make him shoes for free.
This was a blessing for Robert, who had whopping 47 cm (18.5 in) long feet – the equivalent of a US size 37AA (UK size 36, roughly a European size 75) – the Largest feet ever. His shoes could cost as much as $100, equal to $1,500 (£1,026) in today’s currency.
The Alton Giant also boasted the Largest hands ever, measuring 32.3 cm (12.7 in) from the wrist to the tip of his middle finger.
But what caused Robert’s extraordinary height?
Doctor’s examined Robert and realised that his exceptional size was caused due to hyperplasia of his pituitary gland. This condition causes an abnormally high level of the human growth hormone and Robert was never given any treatment to stop it.
With a staggering peak daily food consumption of 8,000 calories, he actually continued to grow taller right up until his death.
Since then, medical technology and treatment has advanced significantly and people who suffer from pituitary gigantism are able to have surgery to halt the production of the growth hormone, like Sultan Kösen, the record holder for Tallest man living in 2018.
Robert’s condition caused him to have difficulty getting around – he had leg braces and a walking stick, but never used a wheelchair.
Sadly, it was the Robert's legs that caused his premature death, aged just 22 years old.
He died at 1:30 a.m. on 15 July 1940 in a hotel in Manistee, Michigan, as a result of a septic blister on his right ankle caused by a brace, which had been poorly fitted only a week earlier.
His last words were “The doctor says I won't get home for the....celebrations”, a reference to his paternal grandparents golden wedding.
The Alton Giant was then buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Alton in an enormous coffin measuring 3.28 m (10 ft 9 in) long, 81 cm (32 in) wide and 76 cm (30 in) deep.
In 1986 a life-size statue of Wadlow was erected on College Avenue in Alton, opposite the Alton Museum of History and Art, in honour of the city’s most famous resident.
There are also a number of real-size models of him in a variety of museums across the world.
His influence has even stretched into the music world as in 2005 American singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens recorded a track titled “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders”, about Wadlow’s life.
The tallest man has always been a favourite title of Craig Glenday, Editor-in-Chief at Guinness World Records:
For our 60th anniversary, we looked back some of the holders of our tallest human titles, from Robert Wadlow to Sultan Kösen (the current Tallest Man (living) title holder standing at 8ft 3in).
In the video below, Guinness World Records Editor-in-Chief Craig Glenday explains how this category is one of our most iconic, featuring archive footage and interviews with medical experts and celebrities.
We also talk to school children who give their take on the challenges faced with being the tallest man in the world.