Robert Wadlow split image

"The doctor says I won't get home for the...celebrations."

Robert Pershing Wadlow, the tallest man ever, spoke his last words a few hours before passing away in his sleep at 1:30 a.m. on 15 July 1940.

He was just 22 years old.

Robert Wadlow died due to a septic blister on his right ankle caused by a poorly-fitted iron brace, which he wore to support his legs. He measured 8 ft 11.1 in (2.72 m) and weighed 439 lb (199 kg) at his time of death.

But how did something so small as a blister cause Wadlow’s untimely end?

Robert Wadlow

It helps to know that Robert Wadlow possessed the largest feet ever. He wore US size 37AA shoes (UK size 36; EU size 75), equivalent to 18.5 in (47 cm) long.

Unfortunately, due to his extreme height and weight, he was plagued by foot injuries throughout his life and required medical attention at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri several times, according to newspaper articles transcribed by Illinois Genealogy Trails.

On one such occasion in 1932, aged 14, Robert was brought to the hospital after slipping into a slight dip in the street whilst playing with a friend. Two of the bones in his foot were found to be broken and from then on, Robert needed to wear an ankle brace to support his sizeable stature.

At the age of 17, Robert was hospitalized for eight weeks due to an infection caused by a shoe-pad which was designed to support his foot arches. Eight men and a reinforced stretcher were required to carry Wadlow to the hospital.

Dr. Charles Humberd, a coroner and doctor who had been studying gigantism, paid a visit to examine 18-year-old Robert Wadlow in 1936.

One of the things Humberd made note of in his report was the lack of sensations such as touch, pain and temperature in Wadlow’s feet.

"He is unaware of a wrinkle in his sock or a foreign body in his shoe until a blister, followed by an ulcer, is formed."

Robert wadlow standing next to women

Having the world’s largest feet was not just painful, but also expensive. Wadlow’s  supersized shoes cost $100 a pair (over $2,000 adjusted for inflation in 2022).

In order to pay for the ever-increasing costs of his ever-increasing body, 20-year-old Robert began touring with the International Shoe Company, which provided him with his custom-made shoes.

Robert and his father travelled over 300,000 miles, visiting over 800 towns and 41 states to promote the company's shoes. 

However, it was during one of these tours that Robert became fatally ill.

After riding in an Independence Day parade at the 1940 Manistee National Forest Festival in Michigan, he returned to his hotel room with a fever.

The cause of Robert’s sickness was an infected blister on his right ankle, which had formed as a result of a newly-fitted iron brace chafing his skin. Robert had been unaware of the wound due to the lack of sensation in his body’s extremities.

After refusing to go to a hospital, Robert was attended to by a doctor in his hotel room.

Despite receiving emergency surgery and a blood transfusion, Robert’s condition grew progressively worse.

When she learned of her son’s illness, Addie Wadlow immediately flew to Michigan with Robert’s younger brother, Harold Jr.

"When we saw Robert in Michigan, he was very quiet. He had a very high temperature," Harold Jr recounted in an interview with Dan Brannan for the book Boy Giant.

On the night of 14 July 1940, Robert spoke to his parents for the last time. The bedridden 22-year-old expressed sadness at not being able to attend his grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary celebrations at the end of the month.

"The doctor says I won't get home for the...celebrations." 

Robert Wadlow fell asleep that night, never to wake again.

Robert Wadlow coffin

Robert Wadlow’s funeral

Robert Wadlow’s body was brought back to Alton, Illinois for burial.

A 10-ft-9-in (3.28 m) steel coffin, weighing over 1,000 lbs (453 kg), was specially constructed and required at least 16 pallbearers to carry.

It was kept in Streeper Funeral Home, which was open for two consecutive days and nights to allow people to view Robert’s body.

On 19 July 1940, a huge crowd - estimated to be around 1,000 people – gathered outside the funeral home, where services were conducted by Rev. W L Hanbaum, pastor of the Main Street Methodist Church.

Masonic services were also conducted, as Robert was a member of the Order of DeMolay, a Masonic organization for young men.

Robert Landiss, a fellow DeMolay member, watched over Robert’s casket upon its arrival in Alton and recalled that the lines to view Wadlow’s body were up to three blocks long.

At the church, nearby the funeral home, hymns were played on the organ –  which was bought by Robert with some of his tour earnings – and transmitted over the amplification system to those at the services.

Robert’s coffin was too long to fit entirely inside the hearse, so the back doors were kept open and a black cloth was used to conceal the protruding part.

Public buildings along the route from the funeral home to the cemetery flew their flags at half-mast and all local businesses temporarily closed.

Robert Wadlow was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Upper Alton. His headstone reads, "At Rest". 

It’s estimated that 33,295 people viewed Robert’s body or attended the funeral. Mr. Streeper, director of the funeral home, said that all the carpet had to be removed because it had been worn out by the sheer number of visitors.

After Robert’s death, his family destroyed most of his belongings because they did not want them to be collected and displayed as ‘freak’ or ‘giant’ memorabilia. Additionally, Robert’s burial vault was sealed with concrete in order to deter anyone who attempted to exhume his corpse.

In 1985, a life-size bronze statue of Robert Wadlow was erected in his hometown, immortalizing the Alton Giant forever.

To this day, Robert Wadlow remains the tallest human to have ever lived and his record is considered to be unbreakable.

Beyond his record, he will be remembered as a gentle soul who overcame tremendous adversity and brought joy to all those who met him.

Header image credit: Getty (left); Alamy (right)