Robert Wadlow split image

The records for the world’s tallest people are perhaps the most iconic of all Guinness World Records titles. 

Whether it be the tallest woman living, tallest teenager living, or tallest bodybuilder, there’s something about them that fascinates people around the globe. 

However, among this pantheon of rather large record breakers, there is one who stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Robert Wadlow, the tallest man ever, was 8 ft 11 in (2.72 m) at his peak height. That’s taller than a grizzly bear standing on its hind legs. 

Robert wadlow standing next to women

Born in Alton, Illinois, USA on 22 February 1918, Robert reached unprecedented heights from an early age.

By the age of just six years old he was already 5 ft 7 in tall and by the end of the following year he had outgrown his father.

Robert crossed the eight-foot mark at age 16, becoming the tallest teenager ever. Shortly after his 21st birthday, at a height of 8 ft 9 in, he was recognized without any doubt to be the tallest human ever measured.

It’s highly unlikely that any human will ever reach such a size again. Let’s examine why.

At no point in history has a woman been considered the tallest human ever.

In fact, only one woman in history has ever held the record for being the tallest person living.

Zeng Jinlian (China, b. 26 June 1964, d. 13 February 1982) reached a staggering 8 ft 1 in (2.46 m). Surprisingly, all of her family members were under 5 ft 5 in.  

Zeng is the only woman to have ever exceeded the eight-foot mark. She stood over one foot taller than the current tallest woman living, Rumeysa Gelgi (Turkey).

Whilst Zeng was taller than virtually every man ever, she was still 10 inches short of Wadlow’s record height, showing just how unlikely it is for a woman to ever break his record. 

We can also discount tall people whose height is not caused by an underlying medical condition.

So called ‘non-pathological giants’, such as former tallest man living Bao Xishun (China, 7 ft 9 in; 2.36 m), are simply blessed, or perhaps cursed, with ‘tall’ genes.

These genes run strong in the Zegwaard family (Netherlands), who together measure an average of 6 ft 7 in (2.01 m), making them the tallest family in the world.

Tall twins also usually share this genetic trait. The tallest identical twins (female) Ann and Claire Recht (USA, b. 9 February 1988), were both measured and found to have a height of 6 ft 7 in (2.01 m).

And yes, if you're wondering, tall people are likely to make tall babies. 

The longest baby was born to Canada's Anna Swann and her husband Martin Van Buren Bates of Kentucky, both of whom towered upwards of 7 ft 11 in. Their big baby measured 28 in (71.1 cm) from head to toe at birth.

Genes can only take you so far though. 

The heights reached by our tallest ever record holders are usually caused by the overproduction of growth hormones, which are regulated by the brain's pituitary gland.

It may be the size of a pea, but the pituitary gland has a big job to do. It secretes an increased amount of growth hormone during puberty, but if it malfunctions, it can release too much.

Sultan Kösen (Turkey, b. 10 December 1982) is currently the world's tallest man living at 8 ft 1 in (2.46 m). 

For the average person, the growing pains of puberty come to an end when chemical signals tell our bones to stop stretching. However, in Sultan’s case, his hormones kept on going and his bones continued growing.

At 10 years old, Sultan experienced a sudden explosion in growth due to the development of a tumour on his pituitary gland.

Sadly, it wasn't properly diagnosed until he was in his 20s and wasn’t removed until he was 28. In 2010, revolutionary gamma-knife surgery on the tumour finally halted Sultan's production of growth hormones and stopped the world’s tallest man from getting any taller.

So how did Robert Wadlow reach the heady heights of 8 ft 11 in (2.72 m) - a whole eight inches taller than Sultan?

Wadlow’s pituitary gland was also compromised during his childhood, but not by a tumour. Rather, it was affected by a condition known as hypertrophy, which means it was much bigger than expected.

His hypertrophic pituitary gland was diagnosed by doctors, but they advised the family to avoid any attempts at removing it surgically. At the time, the risk of death was simply too high.

Robert made the most of his unique condition, becoming a nationwide superstar and travelling thousands of miles each year to make personal appearances.

Robert Wadlow

However, it was during one of these long promotional tours that Robert became seriously ill. In 1940, during a trip to Manistee, Michigan, Robert noticed something wrong with his leg. 

For a while he’d been wearing a metal brace to support his ankle and leg whilst walking, but due to a lack of feeling in his body’s extremities, he didn’t notice the brace rubbing against his skin. It quickly became infected, confining Robert to a hotel room where a makeshift hospital was set up around him.

Despite blood transfusions, he eventually succumbed to the infection. Robert Wadlow sadly passed away on 15 July 1940, aged just 22 years old.

Why Robert Wadlow's record will never be broken

It's tragic to think that an infected ankle was a death sentence 80 years ago. With modern medicine, such minor issues can be easily treated today.

This is precisely why Robert Wadlow’s record will probably never be broken.

Developments in medicine and surgery are now sufficiently advanced to nip these kinds of problems in the bud long before they become life-threatening.

We can slow or halt excessive growth and deal with the complications of gigantism long before anyone gets close to Wadlow's superlative stature.

As the world becomes ever more connected, it’s unlikely that any child growing up with a pituitary issue more extreme than Robert Wadlow’s will remain untreated by doctors. 

Fortunately, no one in the future will have to suffer in the same way as the tallest man ever; a gentle giant who took it all his long stride.

Header image: Getty (left), Shutterstock (right)