On a cold February morning in 1918, a couple in Alton, Illinois, welcomed a child into the world. The labor itself was a routine one, with the mother — a woman named Addie Wadlow — giving birth to a baby boy, which the doting parents soon held in their arms. The infant appeared to be healthy, of average height and weight, and without any discernible defects. But at this tender moment, the Wadlows had absolutely no idea that their son would go on to make history — and in a sizable way. That’s because their small child would become the tallest man who ever lived, who at his peak height, stood at an incredible 8 feet 11 inches.
Likely that no human will ever be taller
The Wadlows’ baby boy would become so tall that scientists almost unanimously agree that his height is unlikely to ever be surpassed by another human being. The new parents never could have expected such a thing at the time of their child’s birth, nor could they ever have envisaged that he would have his life cut so tragically short.
So, who exactly was the baby who grew into the largest man that ever lived? And how did his life get cut short in a terrible tragedy? Let’s find out by taking a deep dive into the life of Robert Wadlow, from his birth to his incredible growth and his early demise.
Born in Alton
Robert Pershing Wadlow was born at his family’s home way back on February 22, 1918, in Alton, Illinois. Alton is a small city on the Mississippi River that is approximately 18 miles north of St. Louis, Missouri. It was perhaps most notable as the place where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas last debated in October 1858, a few years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.
But Wadlow’s birth there — and his subsequent recognition as the tallest human being ever recorded — might well have surpassed that landmark event in people’s minds when they think of Alton. Since the 1980s there has even been a life-size bronze statue on College Avenue in the city, marking its most famous son, the “Gentle Giant” of Alton.
First of five children
Wadlow was the first of five children, followed by brothers Eugene and Harold Jr. and sisters Helen and Betty. The future giant’s parents were Harold Franklin Wadlow and Addie May, née Johnston. Wadlow took his middle name from General John J. Pershing, who was commanding officer of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War I.
“Black Jack,” as Pershing was known, would prove to be a towering figure in the global conflict by ensuring Allied victory in Europe. His namesake, of course, would go on to become a literal giant.
On the day Wadlow was born, his weight was an unremarkable eight pounds and six ounces. There was really nothing noteworthy about his size and weight upon birth. In fact, they were both normal and comfortably within the same ballpark as an average newborn.
There was nothing unusual about Wadlow the newborn baby. At first glance, his parents and, indeed, any doctors would not have been able to foretell the rapid growth that his body would soon undertake.