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William Griffith Wilson (November 26, 1895 – January 24, 1971), also known as Bill Wilson or Bill W., was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a fellowship of 100,800 mutual aid groups world-wide [1] of alcoholics helping other alcoholics achieve and maintain sobriety. In compliance with AA Twelfth Tradition of anonymity, Wilson is commonly known as "Bill W." or just "Bill." [2]

Wilson achieved sobriety on December 11, 1934 and maintained it throughout his remaining 36 years. Despite the success and notoriety afforded him by the accomplishments and growth of AA under his leadership, he continued to suffer from episodes of depression, the most serious of these between 1944 and 1955. In 1955 Wilson turned over control of AA to a board of trustees. In the years before his death he changed the makeup of the board, which was initially composed of a non-alcoholic majority, to trustees who were both recovered alcoholics and non-alcoholics, with the majority being recovered alcoholics. In keeping with his interest in spirituality, he experimented with other possible cures for alcoholism. These experiments included LSD,[3] niacin (vitamin B3) and parapsychology as a means of inducing spiritual change.[4] Wilson died of emphysema complicated by pneumonia in 1971. His wife, Lois Wilson, was the founder of Al-Anon, a group dedicated to helping the friends and relatives of alcoholics. In 1999 Time Magazine declared Wilson to be in the top 20 of the Time 100: Heroes and Icons who exemplified "courage, selflessness, exuberance, superhuman ability and amazing grace" in the 20th century.[5]


Early life

Wilson was born on November 26, 1895 in East Dorset, Vermont at his parent's home, now known as the Bill Wilson House. His paternal grandfather, William Willson, had been an alcoholic and had a conversion experience on Mount Aeolus and stayed dry for the remaining years of his life.[6] Bill's father, Gilman Barrows Wilson, the manager of the local marble quarry, was a heavy drinker and adulterer from a long line of alcoholics.[7] His mother, Emily Griffith Wilson, was strong-willed, controlling, judgmental, and abusive.[8] When he was 10 his parents got divorced.[9][10] His father left on a "business trip" that turned out to be a permanent absence, and his mother announced that she would be leaving the family to study osteopathic medicine. Abandoned by their parents, Bill and his sister were left in the care of their maternal grandparents Fayette Griffith and Ella Griffith. Bill and his sister moved in with their grandparents in the small Griffith House, today the Griffith Library in East Dorset, Vermont. Wilson showed some talent and determination in his teen years, once spending months designing and carving a working boomerang. At school, after initial difficulties, he found success as the captain of his school's football team and as the principal violinist of the school orchestra.[11] But he experienced a serious depression at the age of seventeen when his first love, Bertha Bamford, died of complications during surgery.[12]

Marriage, work, and addiction

Wilson met his future wife, Lois Burnham, who was four years older than he, during the summer of 1913 while sailing on Vermont's Emerald Lake; two years later the couple became engaged. He entered Norwich University but depression and panic attacks forced him to leave during his second semester. The next year he returned but was soon suspended with a group of students involved in a hazing incident.[13] Because no one would take responsibility, and no one would identify the perpetrators, the entire class was punished.[14] The June 1916 incursion into the US by Pancho Villa resulted in Wilson's class being mobilized as part of the Vermont Guard and he was reinstated to serve. The following year he was commissioned as an artillery officer. During military training in Massachusetts, the young officers were often invited to dinner by the locals, and Wilson had his first drink, a glass of beer, to little effect.[15] A few weeks later at another dinner party, Wilson drank some Bronx cocktails, and felt at ease with the guests and liberated from his awkward shyness; "I had found the elixir of life," he wrote.[16] "Even that first evening I got thoroughly drunk, and within the next time or two I passed out completely. But as everyone drank hard, not too much was made of that."[4]

Wilson married Lois on January 24, 1918, just before he left to fight in World War I as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Coast Artillery.[17] After his military service, Wilson returned to live with his wife in New York. He failed to graduate from law school because he was too drunk to pick up his diploma.[18] Wilson became a stock speculator and had success traveling the country with his wife, evaluating companies for potential investors. (During these trips Lois had a hidden agenda: she hoped the travel would keep Wilson from drinking.[19]) However, Wilson's constant drinking made business impossible and ruined his reputation.

In 1933 Wilson was committed to the Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions in New York City four times under the care of Dr. William D. Silkworth. Silkworth's theory was that alcoholism was a matter of both physical and mental control: a craving, the manifestation of a physical allergy (the physical inability to stop drinking once started) and an obsession of the mind (to take the first drink) [20]. Wilson gained hope from Silkworth's assertion that alcoholism was a medical condition rather than a moral failing, but even that knowledge could not help him. He was eventually told that he would either die from his alcoholism or have to be locked up permanently due to Wernicke encephalopathy (commonly referred to as "wet brain").

Political beliefs

Wilson was a lifelong political conservative, having opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as The New Deal. Though he benefited from Roosevelt's mortgage moratorium, he wrote to Roosevelt denouncing The New Deal. Wilson and his wife were living in her father's house at the time and the moratorium prevented mortgage foreclosures; they satisfied the mortgage company with a small monthly fee.[21] However Wilson kept a neutral position on politics in his leadership of A.A., writing in A.A. literature that politics should be left outside of A.A. groups in order to make them available regardless of political or religious creed.

A spiritual program for recovery

In November 1934, Wilson was visited by old drinking companion Ebby Thacher. Wilson was astounded to find that Thacher had been sober for several weeks under the guidance of the evangelical Christian Oxford Group.[22] Wilson took some interest in the Group, but shortly after Thacher's visit, he was again admitted to Towns Hospital to recover from a bout of drinking. This was his fourth and last stay at Towns hospital under Doctor Silkworth's care. It was while undergoing treatment with the The Belladonna Cure that Wilson experienced his "Hot Flash" spiritual conversion and quit drinking.[23] According to Wilson, while lying in bed depressed and despairing, he cried out, "I'll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!"[24] He then had the sensation of a bright light, a feeling of ecstasy, and a new serenity. He never drank again for the remainder of his life. Wilson described his experience to Dr. Silkworth, who told him, "Something has happened to you I don't understand. But you had better hang on to it".

Wilson joined the Oxford Group and tried to help other alcoholics, but only succeeded in keeping sober himself. During a failed business trip to Akron, Ohio, Wilson was tempted to drink again and decided that to remain sober he needed to help another alcoholic. He called phone numbers on a church directory and eventually secured an introduction to Dr. Bob Smith, an alcoholic Oxford Group member. Wilson explained Doctor Silkworth's theory that alcoholics suffer from a physical allergy and a mental obsession. Wilson shared that the only way he was able to stay sober was through having a spiritual experience. Dr. Bob was familiar with the tenets of the Oxford Group and upon hearing Wilson's experience, "began to pursue the spiritual remedy for his malady with a willingness that he had never before been able to muster. After a brief relapse, he sobered, never to drink again up to the moment of his death in 1950".[25] Wilson and Dr. Bob began working with other alcoholics. After that summer in Akron, Wilson returned to New York where he began having success helping alcoholics in what they called, "a nameless squad of drunks" in an Oxford Group there.

In 1938, after about 100 alcoholics in Akron and New York had become sober, the fellowship decided to promote their program of recovery through the publication of a book, for which Wilson was chosen as primary author. The book was given the title Alcoholics Anonymous and included the list of suggested activities for spiritual growth known as the Twelve Steps. The movement itself took on the name of the book. Later Wilson also wrote the Twelve Traditions, a set of spiritual guidelines to insure the survival of individual AA groups. The AA general service conference of 1955 was a landmark event for Wilson in which he turned over the leadership of the maturing organization to an elected board.

The final years

During the last years of his life, Wilson rarely attended AA meetings on the grounds that he would always be asked to speak as the co-founder rather than as an alcoholic.[26] A heavy smoker, Wilson eventually suffered from emphysema and later pneumonia. He continued to smoke while dependent on an oxygen tank in the late 1960s.[27] He drank no alcohol for the last 36 years of his life. During the last days of his life, Wilson was visited by colleagues and friends who wanted to say goodbye. Wilson died of emphysema and pneumonia on January 24, 1971 en route to treatment in Miami, Florida; he is buried in East Dorset, Vermont[28]

Temptation and alleged infidelity

Tom Powers helped Bill Wilson to write Bill's second book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Francis Hartigan, who was Lois Wilson's private secretary and confidant, recently wrote a biography of Bill Wilson. For it, Hartigan interviewed Tom Powers, and quoted Tom as saying that he had urged Bill to quit his smoking and womanizing:

All the while we were working on the 'Twelve and Twelve,'" Tom said, "I would argue with him, 'you're killing yourself. And think about what you're doing to Lois!"While other people I spoke with insisted that Lois never knew about Bill's affairs, Tom insisted that "Lois knew everything and she didn't have to guess about it, either. A lot of people tried to protect her, but there were others who would run to Stepping Stones to tell Lois all about it whenever they saw Bill with another woman.

I asked Tom how Bill reacted when Tom would insist that Bill's guilt over his infidelities was responsible for his depressions. "I think that was the worst part of it," he said. "Bill would always agree with me. 'I know,' he'd say. 'You're right.' Then, just when I would think we were finally getting somewhere, he would say, 'But I can't give it up.' "When I would press him as to why the hell not, he would start rationalizing. What would really kill me is when he'd say, 'Well, you know, Lois has always been more like a mother to me.' Which somehow was supposed to make it all right for him to cheat on her." Tom himself had also been sexually compulsive even after he quit drinking, and he found it very hard to change his behavior. ... Tom said that it took him five years after he quit drinking to change his behavior in this area, and for five years after that, he tried to get Bill to change, too. "Besides what he was doing to the women he was chasing and to Lois, his behavior was a huge source of controversy in AA," Tom said. "He could be very blatant about it, and there were times when it seemed like the reaction to a particularly flagrant episode would end up destroying everything he had worked for. But then people would scurry around and smooth things over, or cover it all up." According to Tom, Bill's behavior caused some of his most ardent admirers to break with him. Eventually, Tom broke with Bill, too. "I told him that I still considered him to be my sponsor, but that I didn't want to work with him anymore. I said that I hoped we could be friends, but I didn't want to have anything more to do with him publicly. I just couldn't go on feeling as though I was in any way supporting what he was doing to Lois — and to himself. "Bill said, 'Fine. I feel the same way about you, too,' and we shook on it. As though it were some mutually agreed upon parting of the way, with fault on both sides. Which was a real switcheroo, you know. I think he knew that I saw right through it, but I guess it made him feel better not to have to take responsibility for destroying what had been a very enjoyable and productive working relationship." Bill W., A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Co-Founder Bill Wilson, Francis Hartigan, 2000, pages 171-172.

Wilson alluded to unfulfilled temptation in an account in the Alcoholics Anonymous "Big Book." "There had been no real infidelity," he wrote, "for loyalty to my wife, helped at times by extreme drunkenness, kept me out of those scrapes."[29] Although biographers Francis Hartigan, Matthew Raphael, and Susan Cheever convey a common belief that some AA insiders suspect Wilson had sexual contacts outside of his marriage, no evidence substantiating infidelity has ever come to light.

In the mid 1950s Wilson began vitamin B3 or niacin business venture with Helen Wynn, a woman 12 years [30] his junior. This is seen by some historians as an indication that he might have had an extramarital affair with that woman. Wilson believed strongly that alcoholics and depressives could be helped with vitamins and he became very passionate about this research.[31] She did receive a lifetime interest in 10 percent of his book royalties. (The other 90 percent went to his wife Lois). In 1968, with Wilson's illness making it harder for them to work together, Helen bought a house in Ireland. However there is no factual indication aside from the numerous first hand accounts that there was an actual affair aside from their shared enthusiasm for vitamin B3. Countless love letters between Wilson and his wife Lois spanning a period of more than 60 years can be found in the Stepping Stones (home) archives and GSR archives in New York. There's not a single document or indication in his love letters to his wife or his edited books about any other love affair involving Wilson.[32]

Alternative cures and spiritualism

In the 1950s Wilson experimented with LSD in medically supervised experiments with Betty Eisner, Gerald Heard , and Aldous Huxley. With Wilson's invitation, his wife Lois, his spiritual adviser Father Ed Dowling, and Nell Wing also participated in experimentation of this drug. Later Wilson wrote to Carl Jung, praising the results and recommending it as validation of Jung's spiritual experience. (The letter was not in fact sent as Jung had died.)[33]

At a parapsychology meeting in the 1960s, Wilson met Abram Hoffer and learned about the potential mood-stabilizing effects of niacin. Wilson was impressed with experiments indicating that alcoholics who were given niacin had a better sobriety rate, and he began to see niacin "as completing the third leg in the stool, the physical to complement the spiritual and emotional." Wilson also believed that niacin had given him relief from depression, and he promoted the vitamin within the AA community and with the National Institute of Mental Health as a treatment for schizophrenia. However, Wilson created a major furor in AA because he used the AA office and letterhead in his promotion.[34]

For Wilson, spiritualism was a life-long interest. One of his letters to adviser Father Dowling suggests that while Wilson was working on his book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions he felt that spirits were helping him, in particular a 15th century monk named Boniface.[35] Despite his conviction that he had evidence for the reality of the spirit world, Wilson chose not to share this with AA. However his practices still created controversy within the AA membership. Wilson and his wife continued with their unusual practices in spite of the misgivings of many AA members. In their house they had a "spook room" where they would invite guests to participate in seances using a Ouija board.[36][37]


Alcoholics Anonymous, the organization that Wilson co-founded with Dr. Bob Smith, continues world-wide with over a hundred thousand registered local groups and millions of active members.[citation needed]

Wilson bought a house that he and Lois called Stepping Stones on an 8-acre (3.2 hectare) estate in Bedford Hills, New York in 1941, and he lived there with Lois until he died in 1971. After Lois died in 1988, the house was opened for tours and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.[38]

Wilson has often been described as having loved being the center of attention, but after the AA principle of anonymity had become established he refused an honorary degree from Yale University and refused to allow his picture, even from the back, on the cover of Time. Wilson's persistence, his ability to take and use good ideas, and his entrepreneurial flair[39] are revealed in his pioneering escape from an alcoholic 'death sentence', his central role in the development of a program of spiritual growth, and his leadership in creating and building AA, "an independent, entrepreneurial, maddeningly democratic, non-profit organization."[40]

Wilson is perhaps best known as a synthesist of ideas,[41] the man who pulled together various threads of psychology, theology, and democracy into a workable and life-saving system. Aldous Huxley called him "the greatest social architect of our century,"[42] and Time magazine named Wilson to their Time 100 List of The Most Important People of the 20th Century.[43] Wilson's self description was a man who "because of his bitter experience, discovered, slowly and through a conversion experience, a system of behavior and a series of actions that works for alcoholics who want to stop drinking."

Biographer Susan Cheever wrote in My Name Is Bill, "Bill Wilson never held himself up as a model: he only hoped to help other people by sharing his own experience, strength and hope. He insisted again and again that he was just an ordinary man".

See also


  1. ^ "Alcoholics Anonymous" p XIX
  2. ^ The Traditions also recommend that AA members maintain their anonymity at the level of media. After Wilson's death in 1971 and publication of his full name in obituaries, the AA General Service Conference advised that "AA members generally think it unwise to break the anonymity of a member even after his death, but in each situation the final decision must rest with the family.” This was the case with both Wilson and fellow AA co-founder "Dr. Bob" Smith before him. See for further information.
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (1984), "Pass it on": the story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world,ISBN 0916856127.
  5. ^ Time Magazine Time 100:The most important people of the century, Retrieved December 31, 2007.
  6. ^,+east+dorset&source=bl&ots=nflVSJdXvS&sig=ntZcPCB-aKxIV9QskrMeYw2VgW4&hl=en&ei=GCiYSp_zLKKNtgfHvMHJBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6#v=onepage&q=marble%2C%20east%20dorset&f=false p 17
  7. ^,+east+dorset&source=bl&ots=nflVSJdXvS&sig=ntZcPCB-aKxIV9QskrMeYw2VgW4&hl=en&ei=GCiYSp_zLKKNtgfHvMHJBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6#v=onepage&q=marble%2C%20east%20dorset&f=false page 24
  8. ^ "Pass It On" pp. 24-25
  9. ^ "Pass It On" p.25
  10. ^,+east+dorset&source=bl&ots=nflVSJdXvS&sig=ntZcPCB-aKxIV9QskrMeYw2VgW4&hl=en&ei=GCiYSp_zLKKNtgfHvMHJBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6#v=onepage&q=marble%2C%20east%20dorset&f=false
  11. ^ "Pass It ON" pp. 32-34
  12. ^ B., Mel (2000). My Search For Bill W.. p. 5–10. ISBN 1-56838-374-6. 
  13. ^ Thomsen, Robert (1975). Bill W.. p. 75, 96. ISBN 0-06-014267-7. 
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ Cheever, Susan. (2004). My Name is Bill. Simon and Schuster, p 73. ISBN 074320154X.
  16. ^ "Bill W.: from the rubble of a wasted life, he overcame alcoholism and founded the 12-step program that has helped millions of others do the same." (Time's "The Most Important People of the 20th Century".) Susan Cheever. Time 153.23 (June 14, 1999): p201+.
  17. ^ Pass It On p 54.
  18. ^ Cheever, 2004, p 91.
  19. ^ Pass it on p 59.
  20. ^ "Alcoholics Anonymous" p XXIII-XXVI
  21. ^ Hartigan,Francis "Bill W" p. 5 & 49
  22. ^ Pass it on p 130.
  23. ^ Pittman, Bill "AA the Way it Began p. 163-165
  24. ^ Pass it on p 121.
  25. ^ Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous p xvi
  26. ^ Raphael 2000, p. 167.
  27. ^ Cheever, 2004, pp 245 - 247.
  28. ^ William G. "Bill" Wilson at Find a Grave
  29. ^ Alcoholics Anonymous World Services 1936, Alcoholics Anonymous 3rd Edition, page 3
  30. ^ Social Security Death Index
  31. ^ Niacin, also known as vitamin B3 or nicotinic acid
  32. ^ Francis Hartigan, Bill W., Chapter 25, p. 190-197 and p. 170-171, St. Martins Press, 2000, 1st edition, IBSN 0-312-20056-0
  33. ^ Francis Hartigan Bill Wilson p. 177-179.
  34. ^ Francis Hartigan Bill W P.205-208
  35. ^ Robert Fitzgerald. The Soul of Sponsorship: The Friendship of Fr. Ed Dowling, S.J. and Bill Wilson in Letters. Hazelden Publishing & Educational Services: 1995. ISBN 978-1568380841. p 59.
  36. ^ Harigan, Francis, Bill W.
  37. ^ Ernest Kurtz. Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. Hazelden Educational Foundation, Center City, MN, 1979. p 136.
  38. ^ Alcoholics Anonymous Founder’s House Is a Self-Help Landmark. New York Times. July 6, 2007
  39. ^ Griffith Edwards. Alcohol: The World's Favorite Drug. 1st U.S. ed. New York : Thomas Dunne Books, 2002. ISBN 0-312-28387-3. p 109.
  40. ^ Are we making the most of Alcoholics Anonymous? Peter Armstrong. The Journal of Addiction and Mental Health 5.1, Jan-Feb 2002. p16.
  41. ^ Cheever, 2004, p 122.
  42. ^ Cheever, 1999.
  43. ^ Time 100 Most Important

Sources and further reading

  • Galanter, M. (May 2005). "Review of My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson--His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous". American Journal of Psychiatry 162 (5): 1037–1038. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.5.1037. 


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