Robert WaldlowWho was the tallest man who ever lived?

According to The Guinness Book of World Records, Robert Wadlow of Alton, Illinois, is the tallest man who ever lived. He was 8 feet 11 inches and weighed 439 pounds. But he had a sad life, plagued by injuries due to his tall stature and weight, which put pressure on his joints and legs.

What happened to Robert Wadlow?

Wadlow died in 1940 aged just 22 due to an ankle blister that became infected and sent his body into septic shock.

“He is a pre-acromegalic giant of phenomenal proportions, formed on an enormous scale, colossal and grand in bulk, truly gigantic in all his proportions and symmetrically built,” Charles Humbard, a physician who studied Wadlow, wrote in 1937. JAMA article.

(Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

While it may seem surprising that a small 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 that he constantly battled leg injuries that were a general threat to his life.

Read more: A biologist offers insight into the human foot

The cause of death of Robert Wadlow

At the age of 17, he was hospitalized due to a leg infection. According to Humbird, he had no sensation in his legs and was prone to severe infections as a result. What’s more, finding such large shoes was not only difficult, but also expensive, reportedly costing over $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 far too often. And at nearly three feet taller than the average man, it wasn’t sustainable.

Understanding how Robert Wadlow died

In 1940, he complained of a fever after riding in a parade for the National Forest Festival in Manistee, Michigan. After refusing to go to the hospital, Wadlow fell asleep and did not wake up. His eventual cause of death was an ankle blister due to chafing from the leg brace that was left untreated. He was buried in a 10-foot 9-inch steel casket, which took 16 pallbearers.

Read more: This hominoid is the closest thing we have to extant giants

Pituitary gigantism

Wadlow had a rare condition called pituitary gigantism, which occurs when a child or adolescent has too much human growth hormone (HGH) and becomes very tall as a result. It is caused by a tumor of the pituitary gland. HGH continues to tell the body to grow until the growth plates are called pineal glands in the body it merges into place and there is no more room for movement. If the growth plates have fused and the body continues to grow, this can also cause the organs to enlarge.

Symptoms of pituitary gigantism

In addition to extreme height, people with gigantism often have other symptoms, including large hands and feet, gaps in teeth, enlarged internal organs, excessive sweating, delayed puberty, and sleep problems. And unfortunately, like Wadlow, those with gigantism don’t tend to live long 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 problems and vision loss.

Read more: A rare form of dwarfism may protect against diabetes and cancer

Bigger isn’t always better

Some research shows that in general, even being a little taller can be bad for your health. A June 2022 study published in PLOS Genetics found that greater height was associated with various types of cancer as well as heart problems.

The study followed more than 289,000 participants and found that being taller puts you at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, varicose veins, skin and bone conditions, neuropathy, breast and colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes.

Another study published in the May 2002 issue of Western Journal of Medicinefound that “compared to northern Europeans, shorter southern Europeans have significantly lower all-cause mortality rates.”

Science seems to show that bigger and taller isn’t always better. Although we may want our children to grow up big and tall, and we may have wanted to be taller ourselves, this is not the best thing for our longevity.

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