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This Week in Illinois History: Birth of Alton’s Gentle Giant (February 22, 1918)

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On February 22, 1918, the baby who would become the tallest person in recorded history was born in Alton, Illinois. At birth, Robert Pershing Wadlow was an unremarkable twenty inches long and eight-and-a-half pounds, but an issue with his pituitary gland led his body to produce abnormally high levels of human growth hormone.

At six months old, Wadlow was the height of a two-year-old. He’d reached six feet by age eight and seven feet by age 12. He quickly captured the public’s imagination and appeared in several newsreels playing with his siblings and looming over schoolchildren his own age.

Wadlow was 8 feet tall when he graduated from high school in 1936. He enrolled in college and planned to attend law school, but soon left school to work as a spokesman for the International Shoe Company, which had made the custom shoes to fit his size 37 feet. He travelled the country, appearing at shoe stores to huge crowds. But because of his extreme height, walking soon became difficult. He began using a cane and leg braces.

Robert Wadlow was still growing in 1940 when he tragically passed away at age 22. He had contracted a foot infection from one of his leg braces. Just before his death, he measured 8’ 11.9” and weighed 439 pounds. His final shoe size was 44.5. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral. It took twelve pallbearers and eight assistants to carry the 1,000 pound coffin. Wadlow was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Upper Alton.

Alton still honors the legacy of its tallest son. A life-sized statue of Wadlow was erected in 1986 and you can see his specially built school desk and other artifacts of his short but tall life at The Alton Museum of History and Art.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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