Two rare hormonal disorders result from excessive production of growth hormone (GH), usually from benign tumors on the pituitary gland. When expressed and untreated early in life, excess GH production can produce gigantism. One such example was a native son of Illinois, Robert Wadlow (a.k.a. the Alton Giant), who had the distinction of being the tallest human in recorded history. Wadlow reached a maximum height of 8 feet 11 inches by age 21. French actor and professional wrestler, André René Roussimoff, better known by his ring name André the Giant, was another example.
When excess GH is produced in adulthood after growth plates have closed, the condition is called acromegaly. Instead of gigantism, bone size increases and uncontrolled growth from hyped-up pituitaries isn’t unilateral. Usually only subjects’ extremities and organs are disproportionately large. Some of acromegaly’s characteristics include enlarged hands, feet, forehead, nose and jaw, compromised eyesight, abnormal organ and vocal cord growth and reproductive irregularities in both sexes.
Despite speculation Abraham Lincoln, who was 56 when he was shot, may have exhibited symptoms of late-onset acromegaly, horror film icon Rondo Hatton epitomized the condition. As a high school senior, Hatton starred in football and track and was voted “handsomest boy” in his class. He worked as a sportswriter for The Tampa Tribune and served in combat during the Pancho Villa Expedition, led by “Black Jack” Pershing, and with the U.S. army in France during World War I. When early stages of acromegaly appeared, the army discharged Hatton due to his illness after which he returned to journalism in Tampa. As distortions to his face, head and extremities became a gradual but consistent source of disfigurement, Hatton was hired as an extra in several films by Henry King, a part-time director, who also worked as a reporter on The Tampa Tribune. By 1936, Hatton had moved to Hollywood to pursue a career of, usually uncredited, bit and character roles. Among them were brief appearances in the “Festival of Fools” ugly man contest, won by Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and as part of the lynch mob in The Oxbow Incident. But it was as “the Creeper” and other brutish personas that Hatton achieved fame at Universal Studios, appearing in a string of horror films and thrillers. Years before his death in 1946, Hatton had become a draw for movie audiences, getting top billing for minor roles, such as the monstrous henchman doing Gale Sondergaard’s bidding in The Spider Woman Strikes Back.
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Years ago, author Malcolm Gladwell gave an interesting TED Talk on the biblical confrontation between David and Goliath, the title of his book about “underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants.” Gladwell concluded Goliath, the enormous Philistine sent to do battle with the young shepherd boy, was in all likelihood suffering from acromegaly. The evidence supporting Gladwell’s case is so convincing, Goliath comes off as an underdog, pitiably no match for a kid slinging stones. Three thousand years ago as the story goes, armies of invading Philistines and the Kingdom of Israel were at a stalemate. Each commanded high ground, digging-in impregnably on opposing ridges of ancient Palestine’s Shephelah valley. Offensively, neither army was reckless enough to attack. Advancing down into an exposed valley then up a well-defended slope guaranteed disaster. By mutual agreement, the conflict would be settled by “single combat,” a tradition in ancient warfare of seizing disputed ground without the carnage of a major all-out battle. Both sides would send their mightiest warrior to fight to the death. Goliath, protected with bronze armor and brandishing a sword, javelin and spear, was gargantuan at 6 foot 9. None of the Israelites wanted to fight him because of the obvious mismatch. Finally, David, a shepherd boy, convinced Saul that he would face-off against the Philistine giant, armed with the staff and sling he used to protect his flock against lions and wolves. David also carried five stones, but would only need one, slinging it expertly and hitting Goliath between the eyes, rendering him either unconscious or dead before beheading him with his own sword. On seeing their champion dismembered, the Philistines withdrew, and we are left with a well-worn metaphor for improbable victories, a story of an underdog triumphing over a heavily favored opponent equipped and outfitted with modern weaponry. But was David the disadvantaged contestant or Goliath?
As Gladwell points out, 3,000 years ago armies consisted of infantry, cavalry (including charioteers) and slingers, the ancient equivalent of artillery. To build up kinetic energy and centripetal force to send a projectile with sufficient force to maim or kill, expert slingers probably reached 6 or 7 revolutions per second. That means, once released, the stone left the sling at a devastating 35 meters per second, faster and heavier than a Nolan Ryan fastball. And as Gladwell emphasizes, stones in that part of the Middle East were barium sulfate, considerably denser and heavier concretions than other sedimentary rocks. At 35 meters per second, that type of projectile would exceed the stopping power of a .45 mm handgun, and expert slingers could consistently hit targets up to 150 yards. David, considerably closer to the lumbering Goliath, was in a comfort zone, stretching the lethal limits of javelin accuracy, but well within deadly range of his sling. Goliath, weighted down with 80 or 90 pounds of armor and equipped only for close-range combat, was a goner from the start.
Furthermore, Gladwell insists Goliath may have suffered from acromegaly, using biblical references to support his thesis. As previously stated, acromegaly impairs eyesight, particularly seeing objects in the distance. If we assume 1 Samuel 17 of the Old Testament is historically reliable record, and not purely good fiction, we know that Goliath was led onto the valley floor by an attendant. The Book of Samuel also describes him moving very slowly. Short, seemingly uncertain steps often indicate visual impairment. And why is Goliath oblivious to the fact David is carrying a sling rather than weapons designed for hand-to-hand or close-quarters combat? Furthermore, Goliath makes no attempt to shield himself from a stone while David is twirling his sling. Instead, he makes an odd comment suggesting his vision is either blurred or he’s seeing double. Responding to David’s staff, brandished in the distance, he says, “Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks (not singular but plural)?
Clearly, Goliath was not what he seemed to be, an anomaly which led to speculation in medical journals in the 1960s on which Gladwell also builds his case. Tumors on pituitary glands associated with gigantism and acromegaly often apply pressure on optic nerves, causing either double-vision or profound myopia. Such a condition would not only explain Goliath’s size and strange behavior, but why he had to be led by the hand to his one-sided confrontation with David and ultimate demise. When he demands David come closer so he can “feed his flesh to the birds,” he’s really announcing his vulnerability, admitting his difficulties in seeing. Goliath’s imposing size was an obvious indicator of strength but also a signal of weakness, a dichotomy that feeds into some modern-day parables.
Industrialized nations, the U.S. in particular, have long been deluded by mythological prospects of unlimited growth in a finite world. Not only is that economic obsession unsustainable, it engenders the same kinds of risks as acromegaly, deforming society through the gigantism of the military-industrial complex, big banks, corporations and Wall Street. It makes us weak and vulnerable, heedless of our own senses and the warnings direct observation, science and natural occurrences produce. Survival strategies are so near-sighted and economically diversionist we’re blinded to the obvious: our lack of commitment to mitigating climate change, looming confrontations with domestic terror groups and firearms caches; how the battle between good and evil is now a clash between truth and lies. How much money can be looted from the financial system by imposing debt peonage on everyone else before the system again implodes? Each year we spend more on militarism than the next 11 nations combined, yet “improvised explosive devices,” modern equivalents to David’s stones, find chinks in our soldiers’ protection.
Just as gigantism overtaxes vital organs, the planet’s natural support systems are beginning to fail under constant assaults by corporate capitalism. Frequencies of catastrophic events predicted for 2050 are happening now in the form of floods, wildfires, mega-droughts, heat waves and food shortages. Iconic Chinese paddlefish were recently declared extinct, monarch butterflies appear on the ropes, and excess CO2 and heat are making the oceans inhospitable even faster than we scientists anticipated. The oceans are rapidly heating and acidifying, and nutrient runoffs from farming and climate change are causing de-oxygenation.
If you doubt the latter, try getting downwind of a Smithfield pig manure lagoon in Virginia or North Carolina, or a similar cesspool in Germany’s Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. Then multiply those effects by 20,000 times for livestock facilities in the U.S. alone. Unless we make a WWII-scale commitment to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the biosphere, but especially marine life, will face a deadly trifecta, one probably unprecedented in Earth’s history. Each of the five known oceanic mass extinctions was preceded by at least one of that trio: acidification, warming, de-oxygenation. With all three in play, attributable to anthropogenic causes and their aftermaths, millions of species now face extinction. And none will be saved by trusting myths that “bigger is better” or human technology and ingenuity will somehow save us like an over-sized champion in single, mortal combat. For over a century, corporate assaults on critical thinking and marginalization of truth-speakers, dismissing them as pessimists, abetted that delusion. Now, too many of us are dangerously pacified by baseless, non-expert opinion, amplified by social media.
If government is too corrupt or incompetent to avert disasters, vote the major parties out. If media fail to report or downplay the urgency of climate change, switch channels and boycott their advertisers. If manufacturers won’t reduce carbon emissions, stop buying their products. We must obliterate false hopes of endless material progress and the infantile optimism of invincibility and special status in the world that pushes unsustainable growth. Failure to make climate change our top priority perpetuates malignancies that deform society and blur the image of a shepherd boy, stone in his sling, already in range of our foreheads.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.