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Will Robert Wadlow Always Be the World’s Tallest Man?

Will anyone ever be taller than Robert Wadlow?

The small-town boy from Illinois was a whopping 8’11” tall — that’s right: eight feet, eleven inches — when he died in 1940. He was only 22 years old. Wadlow was killed by the infection from a blister on his heel. Perhaps that’s ironic, since he worked as an ambassador for the International Shoe Company. His custom-built coffin was 10 feet long and required 16 pallbearers.

An astoundingly tall young man, Robert Wadlow towers over a 5-foot-tallish woman as they stand together at an old-time radio microphone

Robert Wadlow towers over a young woman with a radio microphone during an appearance in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Guinness Book of World Records has done more than anyone to keep Wadlow’s legend alive. It was 1955 when the book first proclaimed him the tallest man “of whom there is irrefutable evidence.” (No Nephilim, please.) Nowadays the book’s “records” can border on the absurd, like loudest burp or longest human tunnel traveled through by a skateboarding dog, but World’s Tallest Man is a true meat-and-potatoes category.

Now the Guinness people say they think Wadlow will always be the world’s tallest man. Here’s why: Wadlow’s super-growth was caused by pituitary hypertrophy — that is, an overactive pituitary gland. Wadlow’s doctors told him that surgery was too risky and that he was better off just growing. And in fact, he kept growing until the day he died.

That’s where modern medicine comes in. Today, pituitary surgery is not such a big deal. (They go in through your nose!) Surgery may not even be needed: drugs and radiation can also put a stop to glandular hijinks. It’s routine enough now that the next Robert Wadlow will probably have his or her condition diagnosed and treated in childhood, and end up being just a normal tallish person.

And without medical abnormality, nobody’s going to be nine feet tall. The current world’s tallest man, Sultan Kösen, also had pituitary problems, but they were fixed with gamma-knife surgery when he hit 8’3″, a full seven inches shorter than Wadlow. The tallest woman alive, at 7’0″, is Rumeysa Gelgi, also from Turkey. (Her growth was caused by Weaver’s Syndrome.)

The tallest “true” giant in history — that is, a person without medical issues — was said to be Angus MacAskill of Scotland, who stood 7’9″ tall at his death in 1863. That’s 14 inches shorter than Wadlow.

Never say never, of course. Perhaps with a few dozen more generations of good nutrition, volleyball players marrying volleyball players, and so forth, we’ll get a human who will just naturally break the nine-foot mark. But at this point, it seems like a stretch.

More: Why Robert Wadlow Will Be the Tallest Person Ever, Forever »

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