When 18-year-old Adam Rainer went to enlist in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1917, he intended to contribute his services—and possibly his life—fighting in World War I. But army officials blanched at Rainer’s stature. He was no more than 4 feet, 6 inches tall, which fit the clinical threshold for dwarfism. Rainer was turned away.
Had those same military personnel seen him just a few years later, they would have probably failed to recognize him. Incredibly, Rainer grew to be over 7 feet tall, a feat of physiology that later led Guinness World Records to give him the title of the man with the “most variable stature” in history.
Photographs that are purported to be of Rainer regularly circulate online. While these images have dubious origins and captions—few seem to actually depict Rainer, at either of his extreme height measurements—his incredible growth spurt has been well documented. The likely cause was acromegaly.
This disorder of the pituitary gland, often caused by an otherwise benign tumor, can cause a sharp increase in growth hormone secretion, leading to outsized features (hands, feet, or face) as well as stature. It’s the same condition that André Roussimoff, better known as André the Giant, had; he used his 7 foot, 1 inch frame to great success in the world of professional wrestling.
Rainer didn’t have such opportunities, because his early life bore no indication he would grow to be such an imposing presence. Born in 1899 in Graz, Austria, Rainer was below average height well into adulthood, with accounts placing him anywhere between 3 feet, 5 inches and 4 feet, 6 inches by the time he attempted to join the army.
According to the Little People of America advocacy group, this would have placed Rainer under its definition of dwarfism, which can be a medical or genetic condition that results in short stature and either proportionate or disproportionate torso and limbs.
There were clues, however, that Rainer’s size was not so easily classified. According to Guinness, his hands and feet were average-sized, with a shoe size of 10. Then, improbably, they continued to grow with the rest of him, eventually reaching a size 20.
“The parents were of average height,” wrote physician Dr. Oscar Hirsch while attending to Rainer in 1930. “At the age of 21 he started to grow rapidly, especially his hands and feet, and also his head. He needed wider hats and larger shoes.”
Rainer’s growth spurt lasted well over a decade. From age 21 to 31, he grew an average of 3 inches annually, eventually slowing once he reached 7 feet, 1 inch in height. As a result of the acromegaly, his facial features grew exaggerated, and he began to develop a pronounced curvature of his spine. Though acromegaly wasn’t well understood at the time, doctors realized it would be best to intervene before Rainer began to have serious complications.
In 1930, Hirsch performed an operation to remove the pituitary tumor and, hopefully, halt his growth. Rainer survived the then-risky procedure, but the disorder wasn’t eliminated completely. His spine was still giving him problems, and he continued to grow, albeit more slowly than before. Between 1932 and 1950, he gained another 7 inches of height.
Some reports describe Rainer as being infirm later in life, though this isn’t exactly true. He could care for himself despite the discomfort of his size. After spending several years in Austria, he entered an assisted living facility, where he stayed until his death from a perforated intestine on February 3, 1950.
How could one man’s height go from one extreme to the other? Hirsch speculated that the pituitary tumor didn’t develop until Rainer turned 20. Prior to that, his thyroid function was abnormal, contributing to his lack of growth.
Though Rainer’s profile was impressive, he is not the world’s tallest man who ever lived. That honor belongs to Robert Wadlow, who was measured by Guinness representatives as being 8 feet, 11 inches tall in 1940. (Footage of Wadlow can be seen above.) Wadlow’s ascent was more telegraphed: He was 5 feet, 4 inches by age 5. Zeng Jinlian was 8 feet, 1 inch upon her death in 1982, making her the tallest woman to ever live.
That Rainer experienced life as both a little person and a giant is virtually unprecedented, affording him a perspective, both literal and figurative, that may never be repeated.