The truth about the tallest person in the world

The classic phrase "size doesn't matter" really depends on the context. In terms of validity as a human being? Sure, size makes no difference. But for many areas of life, size is a big deal. It matters for sumo wrestlers, jockeys, and NBA players just as much as it matters for those who want to drive a VW Beetle. If you're 8 feet and 11 inches tall, your VW dreams aren't happening. 

And if you think 8 feet and 11 inches is an arbitrary height made up for rhetorical effect, you're only half right. There actually was a human being that was this tall, and his name was Robert Wadlow. (He wasn't oddly waxen; that's a statue of him.) And there's someone almost that tall alive today.

Robert Wadlow, the tallest person ever

He was born in Illinois in 1918 to normal-sized parents, according to the Guinness World Records. (That's his father on the right.) He came out of the womb at around eight pounds, by no means super large, but by the time he was five, he was 5 feet 4 inches tall. By age eight, he was six feet tall, requiring his own customized Boy Scouts tent and uniform.

As a teenager he hit his growth spurt, rocketing up to eight feet tall at age 17. After graduating high school, he began to appear in the Ringling Bros. Circus, earning him international fame. It didn't hurt that he also had the largest hands and feet ever, with a size 36 shoe and hand that reached just over a foot in length from wrist to the tip of the middle finger.

A short life for the tallest man ever

Unfortunately, poor Mr. Wadlow only lived to be 22-years-old. His unique size would also be his demise. According to Ripley's, Wadlow suffered from pituitary gigantism. As you can probably guess, his growth hormones never stopped, and doctors believe that had he lived longer, he would have surpassed nine feet in height.

Being so tall also meant that his legs had to support 450 pounds of weight, requiring him to use leg braces by age 20. Just two years later, a poorly fitted brace gave him a sore which became infected, and his body's organs couldn't fight it off. Not wanting his body to be stolen, as was known to happen to giants, Wadlow's family had him buried in a 10-foot six-inch steel coffin, a fittingly cool footnote to the life of the world's tallest man.

The tallest person alive today

The current Guinness World Record holder for world's tallest living person is Sultan Kosen of Turkey. Kosen is affected by the same condition that Wadlow was, pituitary gigantism, but thanks to a revolutionary new technology called Gamma Knife surgery, his height has maxed out at 8 feet and 2.8 inches tall. 

The copyrighted technique is not literally a knife, but a form of highly localized radiation treatment, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. While the surgery means Kosen won't be living as large as he could be, he'll live much longer, which more than makes up for it.