The Extraordinary Lives of the World's Tallest People

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As a relatively tall person, I know that excessive height means struggling to find fashionable shoes that fit and fighting sneeze guards at salad bars. Here are the stories of several people way taller than me, the good they've done with their extreme height, and the problems encountered along the way.

Sandy Allen

Until her death on August 13, Sandy Allen was verified by Guinness Book of World Records as the world's tallest woman—over 7-feet, 7-inches—a record she held since 1976. She initially contacted Guinness in order to meet someone her own height. "It is needless to say my social life is practically nil," she wrote, "and perhaps the publicity from your book may brighten my life." Indeed, she became a public figure, appearing in the Guinness Museum of World Records in Ontario and making speaking appearances for youth and church groups. She turned her experiences into a book (Cast a Giant Shadow), appeared in many film projects, and was the subject of a 1982 Split Enz song.

Robert Wadlow

Robert Pershing Wadlow of Alton, Illinois, is the tallest person in recorded history. Everyone in his family was of average height, and Robert was a standard size when he was born. His height is attributed to hypertrophy of his pituitary gland, which created an excess of human growth hormone. At the time of his death, he was a staggering 8-feet, 11-inches tall, and he would have continued to grow due to his medical condition.

Wadlow received a scholarship and planned to become an attorney, but his size made college difficult. Pens and pencils were hard to grasp, and the icy Illinois winters made him fear a fall while walking between academic buildings. After a year of college, he joined the circus and later became a goodwill ambassador for the International Shoe Company. He and his father toured the west coast, and the nation became enamored with the Alton Giant.

In 1940, Wadlow didn't notice that he had developed a blister from his leg braces. This led to a lethal infection. His funeral attracted more than 30,000 mourners—he was buried in a half-ton coffin that was interred within a vault of solid concrete to deter vandals and thieves. His family had all of his belongings destroyed in order to prevent collectors from displaying them as freak show items. Many life size figures and statues of Wadlow have been erected across the country.

Yao Defen

Defen may be approved by Guinness as the world's tallest woman in the near future, as she claims to stand 7-feet, 8-inches tall. Though she was scouted as a potential athletic superstar in China, she proved to be too weak due to health problems caused by acromegaly (a condition where the pituitary gland continues to produce growth hormone well after puberty, usually caused by a tumor). Illiterate and in need of money to support her aging parents, she became a circus performer and traveled with her father. After he died, she was severely mistreated by the circus manager, who denied her medical treatment and bullied her into contract extensions.

A British documentary crew discovered Defen impoverished, malnourished and in failing health. They filmed a special about her for The Discovery Channel and were able to arrange free medical care from two leading acromegaly specialists. The doctors established a website for her, and thanks to many generous donors, enough money has been raised to provide Defen with proper living conditions and nutrition. Once her health stabilizes, she will undergo surgery to remove the remainder of her pituitary gland tumor, which is making her go blind.

Gheorghe Muresan

muresan.jpgNo list of tall people would be complete without a basketball player. Romanian Gheorghe Muresan is the tallest NBA player of all time, a hair above the previous record holder, Manute Bol. Muresan's height is attributed to a pituitary disorder. His professional career was often derailed by injuries, and he was sent back to the European league after one season in the NBA. Muresan overcame his ailments, returned to the NBA and was named Most Improved Player in 1995. He completed his career with a per-game average of 9.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, and a .573 field goal percentage. After retiring from basketball in 2000, Muresan dabbled in acting, playing a ventriloquist in Eminem's "Slim Shady" video and the title role in the film My Giant.

Bao Xishun

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Mongolian herdsman Bao Xishun was listed as the world's tallest living man until August 2007. He is only 7-feet, 9-inches tall, but has no known growth disorder. He played basketball for the army, but severe rheumatism forced him to quit. He returned to Inner Mongolia and became a greeter at a local restaurant and drew the attention of the media, who wrote to Guinness on his behalf. Though Leonid Stadnik quickly surpassed his record, Xishun is still a hugely popular figure. In December 2006, he used his extra long arms to remove dangerous shards of plastic from the bellies of two dolphins.

[Image courtesy of The Cellar.]

Leonid Stadnyk

Ukranian veterinarian Leonid Stadnyk may be the tallest living person, standing at an impressive height of 8-feet, 5-inches. For years, Stadnyk refused to be officially measured because of his desire to live a quiet life. Like Yao Defen, he was the subject of a documentary by The Discovery Channel and received treatment from specialists.

leonid.jpgStadnyk's excessive growth began after brain surgery when he was 14 years old. After the surgery, he developed acromegaly and continued to grow until he was in his mid-30s, when his tumor naturally disappeared. His height forced him to give up his job as a veterinarian after suffering frostbite on his feet—he was unable to afford the specially-made shoes. Like many people with acromegaly, Stadnyk's health is deteriorating at a young age, and he is currently suffering from heart and foot problems. His height keeps him confined to his tiny village. He once said, "Taking a public bus for me is the same as getting into a car's trunk for a normal person.''

However, his life seems to have improved at least slightly since he claimed the world height record; he has received many gifts, including an extra large bicycle and a computer with internet access. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko even gave him a car. To relax, Stadnyk cultivates exotic plants and pampers his tiny blue and yellow parakeet.

NOTE: Stadnyk has repeatedly refused to be measured by Guiness officials; he was originally awarded the title of world's tallest person based on a letter from his doctor. But Guinness has made their guidelines more strict and will no longer accept non-Guinness measurements for submission. Bao Xishun will once again be coronated as the world's tallest man when the 2009 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records is released in September.

[In case you were wondering, the above photo is Stadnik with Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko.]

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