Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Superphysiques

By Tim Olds

Why did André become a giant, and the people of Manus Island the most muscular?

In 1958 in a village north of Paris, a French farmer asked an Irish expat if he could drive his son André to school in his truck. The problem was that, at 12 years old, André was already 191 cm tall and weighed 110 kg, and would not fit into the school bus. “The whole way,” André complained, “he talked about nothing except cricket”.

The Irishman was Samuel Beckett, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Beckett was a minor cricket luminary, having played for Ireland at a time when the Irish were even worse at cricket than they are now.

We’ll see what became of André later – he was to end up much richer and more famous than Beckett – but first let’s see what causes conditions like his.

Growth is largely regulated by a number of hormones, notably human growth hormone, testosterone and insulin. Hypersecretion of human growth hormone, in particular, may arise from pituitary tumours or genetic variants, and stimulates unfettered growth. Young children can achieve near-adult heights: the records are 141 cm at 3 years, 156 cm at 4, and 182 cm at 7. The tallest man who ever lived, Robert Wadlow, measured 163 cm when he was just 5, eventually growing to 272 cm.

Tallness has always exerted a popular fascination. In 1675, Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia created a special regiment called the Potsdam Giants. It never saw battle, but the entry requirement was a minimum height of 188 cm, with some members measuring over 220 cm. King Friedrich himself was a modest 160 cm.

Extreme size can also be caused by a lack of factors that inhibit growth. In 1997, scientists discovered myostatin, a hormone responsible for limiting muscle growth. Animals and humans lacking myostatin or with defective myostatin receptors due to genetic variants develop hypermusculature. “Mighty mice” in which the myostatin-producing gene has been knocked out are twice as big as normal mice.

Some strains of cattle have natural mutations. Piedmontese and Belgian double-muscled blue cattle look like bovine versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger. You’d think they’d be a godsend to the livestock industry, but their offspring are so muscular that they often need to be delivered by Caesarean section, making them more trouble than they’re worth.

There is also a natural whippet mutant, the “bully” whippet, that is bigger than a bulldog.

Some humans have myostatin gene mutations, resulting in young children with bodybuilder-like musculature.

We don’t know to what extent myostatin mutations are common among bodybuilders. Testosterone, both natural and artificial, is likely to play a much more important role.

Human musculature is often quantified using a system called “somatotyping”, which includes a muscle component called “mesomorphy”. Mesomorphy can be quantified either by measuring a series of muscle girths and bone breadths, or by visual inspection by experts. Mesomorphy ratings begin at 0.5 and have no upper limit, but a guy you would think was really muscular at your local gym might be a 7.

One of the most muscular people ever measured was Serge Reding, a Belgian librarian. A warning: don’t be late returning a book to a Belgian library. Reding, a silver medallist in weightlifting at the 1968 Olympics, had a mesomorphy rating of 12.

Modern-day bodybuilders are even more mesomorphic. The winner of the 1998–2005 Mr Olympia contest, Ronnie Coleman (140 kg at 180 cm), has a rating of 13. The most muscular population in the world are the Manus of Papua New Guinea. One in ten Manus males has a mesomorphy rating of 8 or more, the kind of musculature that would attract every eye in a gym.

Hormones can also play a role when we grow out rather than up. Leptin is a hormone that controls feelings of satiation and reduces appetite. The amount of leptin is proportional to the amount of body fat, so a lack of leptin secretion means that the body is unaware of how fat it is, and leptin-deficient individuals tend to overeat.

Leptin deficiency may or may not have been a factor in historical records in superobesity. The heaviest person who ever lived, American John Minnoch (1941–83), weighed 635 kg. The highest reported body mass index is 193.7 for Rosalie Bradford (544 kg at 167.5 cm).

But back to André Roussimoff, who just grew and grew until he was 224 cm tall and weighed 240 kg. He became better known as André the Giant, and pursued a very successful and lucrative wrestling career. Tragically he died at 46.

Giants rarely live into their fifties, but André doubtless made matters much worse by gargantuan feats of drinking, at one time consuming 156 beers in a row.

I’d like to see Tony Abbott do that.

Professor Tim Olds leads the Health and Use of Time Group at the Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia.