Yao Defen (July 15, 1972 – November 13, 2012) was the tallest living woman, as recognized by Guinness World Records. She stood at 7 ft 8 in tall (2.33 m), weighed 179 kilograms (395 lb), and had size 26 (UK) / 78 (EU) feet. Her gigantism was due to a tumor in her pituitary gland.
Yao Defen was born to poor farmers in the town of Liuan in the Anhui province of Shucheng County. At birth she weighed 2.8 kilograms (6.2 lb). At the age of three years she was eating more than three times the amount of food that other three-year-old children were eating. When she was eleven years old she was about six feet, two inches tall. She was six feet nine inches tall by the age of fifteen years.
The story of this “woman giant” began to spread rapidly after she went to see a doctor at the age of fifteen years for an illness. Medical doctors (who also saw her after years) properly diagnosed the illness but decided not to cure her, because her family did not have the 4000 yuan for the surgery. After that, many companies attempted to train her to be a sports star. The plans were abandoned, however, because Yao was too weak. Because she was illiterate, since 1992 Defen earned a living by traveling with her father and performing.
Yao’s giant stature was caused by a condition called acromegaly, wherein a large tumor in the pituitary gland of the brain releases too much growth hormone and causes excessive growth. Around 2002 a hospital in Guangzhou Province removed the tumor and she stopped growing.
The tumor returned and she was treated in Shanghai in 2007, but was sent home for six months with the hope that medication would reduce her tumor enough to allow surgery. The second surgery was never performed due to lack of funds.
In 2009, the TLC cable TV network devoted a whole night’s show to her. She suffered from a fall in her home and had internal bleeding of the brain. She recovered and felt some happiness after a visit from China’s tallest man, Zhang Juncai.
A British television program filmed a documentary on her and helped raise money so she could get proper medical care. They measured her and according to the documentary she was seven feet, eight inches tall. Two leading doctors in acromegaly agreed to help Yao. She was taken to a nearby city hospital, where imaging procedures revealed that a small portion of her tumor, thought to have been removed many years before, still remained, causing continuing problems including weakening vision as it pressed against her optic nerve. She returned home, then was admitted for a month under observation in the larger Shanghai Ruijin Hospital, and given dietary supplements. In that hospital, her growth hormone was greatly slowed down, although it remained a problem. Upon her return home to her mother and brother, she was able to walk with crutches, unassisted by others, and was given a six-month supply of medicines and supplements in hopes of improving her condition enough to undergo surgery.
Yao suffered from hypertension, heart disease, poor nutrition, and osteoporosis. Acromegaly often results from a tumor within the pituitary gland that causes excess growth hormone secretion. As a result, the body’s features become enlarged. It can also delay the onset of puberty as was the case with Yao—she had no secondary sexual characteristics. Potential complication lacking surgery includes blindness and eventually premature death.
She lived near her mother (who is only four feet, eight inches tall) in a small village in rural China.
Yao died on November 13, 2012 at the age of 40 from an unspecified ailment.