According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Robert Wadlow of Alton, Illinois, is the tallest man who has ever lived. He was 8 foot 11 inches and weighed in at 439 lbs. But he had a sad life, plagued with injury due to his towering height and the weight that put pressure on his joints and feet.
What Happened to Robert Wadlow?
Wadlow died in 1940 at just 22 years old due to a blister on his ankle that became infected and triggered septic shock in his body.
"He is a pre-acromegalic giant of phenomenal size, molded on a vast scale, colossal and stupendous in bulk, truly Gargantuan in all his proportions, and symmetrically built," Charles Humberd, a doctor who studied Wadlow, wrote in a 1937 JAMA article.
While it might seem surprising that a tiny blister could cause the death of such a huge man, being a giant is hard on the human body. The sheer size of his feet — the largest in the world at a whopping size 37 — meant he was constantly battling foot injuries that were a common threat to his life.
Read More: Biologist Offers Insight on the Human Foot
Robert Wadlow Cause of Death
At age 17, he was hospitalized due to a foot infection. According to Humberd, he had no sensations in his feet and, as a result, was prone to severe infections. What's more, finding shoes that large wasn't just difficult, it was pricey, reportedly costing upwards of $2,000 a pair in today's money. Wadlow toured with the International Shoe Company to offset the cost of each pair which meant he was on his feet too often. And at nearly three feet taller than the average male, this wasn't sustainable.
Understanding How Robert Wadlow Died
In 1940, he complained of a fever after riding in a parade for the Manistee National Forest Festival in Michigan. After refusing to go to the hospital, Wadlow went to sleep and did not wake up. His eventual cause of death was an ankle blister due to chaffing from his leg brace, which went untreated. He was buried in a 10-foot 9-inch steel coffin that took 16 pallbearers to carry out of the funeral.
Wadlow had a rare condition called pituitary gigantism, which happens when a child or adolescent has too much human growth hormone (HGH), and, as a result, gets very tall. It's caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland. HGH keeps telling the body to grow until growth plates called epiphyses in the body fuse into place, and there's no more room for movement. If the growth plates have fused and the body continues to grow, it can also cause the organs to become enlarged.
Symptoms of Pituitary Gigantism
Other than extreme height, people with gigantism often have other symptoms, including large hands and feet, gaps in their teeth, enlarged internal organs, excessive sweating, delayed puberty and sleeping problems. And sadly, like Wadlow, those with gigantism don't tend to live long lives because the disease comes with so many complications, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart problems, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, increased risk of cancer, spinal issues and vision loss.
Bigger Isn't Always Better
Some research has shown that, on the whole, even being slightly taller can be hard on your health. A June 2022 study published in PLOS Genetics found that greater height is linked to a variety of cancers as well as heart problems.
The study followed over 289,000 participants and found that being taller puts you at a greater risk of cardiovascular conditions, varicose veins, conditions of the skin and bones, neuropathy, breast and colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Another study, published in the May 2002 issue of the Western Journal of Medicine, found that "compared with northern Europeans, shorter southern Europeans had substantially lower all-cause mortality rates."
Science seems to show that bigger and taller isn't always better. While we may want our kids to grow big and tall, and we may have wished to be taller ourselves, it's not the best thing for our longevity.