Bill W.

William Griffith Wilson (26 November 189524 January 1971), also known as Bill Wilson or Bill W., was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a fellowship of self-help groups dedicated to helping alcoholics achieve sobriety. According to the AA Twelfth tradition of anonymity, Wilson was and still is commonly known as "Bill W." or just "Bill." He largely preferred this form of his name over the more formal non-AA version, thus this article will use that form.

Bill achieved sobriety in December 1934 and maintained it throughout his remaining 35 years. Despite the success and notoriety afforded him by the accomplishments and growth of AA under his leadership, he continued to suffer from compulsive behavior and episodes of depression. In 1955 Bill 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 niacin (vitamin B3) and parapsychology as a means of inducing spiritual change. [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.] Bill 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 Bill 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. [Time Magazine [ Time 100:The most important people of the century] , URL retrieved December 31, 2007]

Early life

Bill Wilson was born on November 26, 1895 in East Dorset, Vermont. When he was 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. Bill showed some talent and determination in his teen years. He designed and carved a working boomerang after dozens of failed efforts, and taught himself to play the violin by dogged persistence, pasting a diagram of the notes to the neck of the instrument. At school, after initial difficulties, he found success in sports. But he experienced a serious depression at the age of seventeen when his first love, Bertha Bamford, died from complications during surgery.

Marriage, work, and addiction

Bill 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. Bill was drafted into the army in 1917. During military training in Massachusetts, the young officers were often invited to dinner by the locals, and Bill had his first drink, a glass of beer, to little effect. [Cheever, Susan. (2004). "My Name is Bill". Simon and Schuster, p 73. ISBN 074320154X.] A few weeks later at another dinner party, Bill 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. ["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+.] "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." ["Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A. A. Message Reached the World", New York: Alcoholics Anonymous 1984, ISBN-10: 0916856127, p 56.]

Bill and Lois were married on January 24, 1918, just before he left to fight in World War I as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Coast Artillery ["Pass It On" p 54.] . After an uneventful military service, during which he drank heavily, Bill returned to live with his wife in New York, his dependence on alcohol now fully established. He failed to graduate from law school because he was too drunk to pick up his diploma. [Cheever, 2004, p 91.] Bill 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 Bill from drinking. ["Pass it on" p 59.] ) However, Bill's constant drinking made business impossible and ruined his reputation.

In 1933 he had to be 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 took the form of an allergy (the inability to stop drinking once started) and an obsession (to take the first drink). Bill 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

Bill was a lifelong political conservative, having opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as The New Deal. Though he benefited from Roosevelt's mortgage moratorium that enabled him to keep a roof over his head, he wrote to Roosevelt denouncing The New Deal. Bill 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. [Hartigan,Francis "Bill W" p. 5 & 49]

A spiritual program for recovery

In November 1934, Bill was visited by old drinking companion Ebby Thacher. Bill was astounded to find that Thacher had been sober for several weeks under the guidance of the evangelical Christian Oxford Group ["Pass it on" p 130.] . Bill 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 Bill experienced his "Hot Flash" spiritual conversion and quit drinking. [Pittman, Bill "AA the Way it Began p. 163-165] According to Bill, 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!". ["Pass it on" p 121.] 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. Bill 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".

Bill 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, Bill 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. Bill explained Doctor Silkworth's theory that alcoholics suffer from a physical allergy and a mental obsession. Bill 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 Bill's experience, "began to pursue the spiritual remedy for his malady with a willingness that he had never before been able to muster. He sobered, never to drink again up to the moment of is death in 1950". ["Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous" p xvi] Bill and Dr. Bob began working with other alcoholics. After that summer in Akron, Bill 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 Bill 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 Bill also wrote the Twelve Traditions, the 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 Bill 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, Bill rarely attended AA meetings on the grounds that he would always be asked to speak as the co-founder rather than as an alcoholic. [Raphael 2000, p. 167.] A heavy smoker, Bill eventually suffered from emphysema and later pneumonia. He continued to smoke while dependent on an oxygen tank in the late 1960s. [Cheever, 2004, pp 245 - 247.] Though he had nothing to drink for the last 35 years, on his death bed asked for whisky, which his attendants refused him. [ Spirit against spirits (review of "My Name is Bill" by Susan Cheevers), Times Literary Supplement, June 27, 2004.] During the last days of his life, Bill was visited by colleagues and friends who wanted to say goodbye. Bill died of emphysema and pneumonia on 24 January 1971 en route to treatment in Miami, Florida.

Marital difficulties

In the mid 1950s Bill began an affair with Helen Wyn, a woman 22 years his junior. Bill at one point discussed divorcing Lois to marry Helen. Bill eventually overcame the AA trustees' objections, and renegotiated his royalty agreements with them in 1963, which allowed him to include Helen Wynn in his estate. He left 10 percent of his book royalties to her and the other 90 percent to his wife Lois. In 1968, with Bill's illness making it harder for them to spend time together, Helen bought a house in Ireland. [ Franics Haritigan "Bill W." Chapter 25 p.190-197 and pages 170-171 St. Martins Press, year 2000, 1st edition, IBSN 0-312-20056-0]

Alternative cures and spiritualism

In the 1950s Bill experimented with LSD in medically supervised experiments with Betty Eisner, Gerald Heard , and Aldous Huxley. With Bill's invitation his wife Lois, Father Dowling, and Nell Wing also participated in experimentation of this drug. Later Bill 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.) [Francis Hartigan "Bill Wilson" p. 177-179.]

At a parapsychology meeting in the 1960s, Bill met Abram Hoffer and learned about the potential mood-stabilizing effects of niacin. Bill 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." Bill 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, Bill created a major furor in AA because he used the AA office and letterhead in his promotion. [ Francis Hartigan "Bill W" P.205-208]

For Bill, spiritualism (communicating with the spirits of the dead) was a life-long interest. One of his letters to his spiritual adviser Father Ed Dowling suggests that while Bill 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. [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-13: 978-1568380841. p 59.] Bill believed that the living could communicate with the dead and kept a "Spook Room" in his basement, where he along with others would conduct seances with a Ouija board, as well as experiment with automatic writing. Despite his conviction that he had evidence for the reality of the spirit world, Bill chose not to share this with AA. However his practices still created controversy within the AA membership, with one member writing to C. S. Lewis for advice on the legitimacy of spiritualism. Bill and his wife continued with their unusual practices in spite of the misgivings of many AA members and a letter from Lewis advising against spiritualism. [Harigan, Francis, Bill w. ] [Ernest Kurtz. "Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous." Hazelden Educational Foundation, Center City, MN, 1979. p 136.]

Bill's legacy

Bill bought a house that he and Lois called Stepping Stones on an convert|8|acre|m2|sing=on estate in Bedford Hills, New York in 1941, and he lived there with Lois until he died. After Lois died in 1988, the house was opened for tours and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. [ [ Alcoholics Anonymous Founder’s House Is a Self-Help Landmark - New York Times] July 6, 2007]

Bill was a man of many great strengths and just as great weaknesses. He 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". Bill's persistence, his ability to take and use good ideas, and his entrepreneurial flair [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.] 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." [Are we making the most of Alcoholics Anonymous? Peter Armstrong. "The Journal of Addiction and Mental Health" 5.1, Jan-Feb 2002. p16.]

Bill is perhaps best known as a synthesist of ideas, [Cheever, 2004, p 122.] 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," [Cheever, 1999.] and Time magazine named Bill to their "Time 100 List of The Most Important People of the 20th Century". [ [ Time 100 Most Important] ] Bill'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's 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".

ee also

*History of Alcoholics Anonymous
*Oxford Group
*Twelve-step program
*Rowland Hazard III ("Rowland H")
*William Duncan Silkworth
*Bill W. and Dr. Bob (theatrical play)
*My Name is Bill W. 1989 CBS movie with James Woods & James Garner
*Carl Jung

Sources and further reading

* cite book
url =
title = The A.A. Service Manual combined with Twelve Concepts for World Service
edition = 2004-2005 Edition
location = New York
publisher = Alcoholics Anonymous
year = 2004

* cite book
title= My Name is Bill, Bill Wilson: His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous
author=Susan Cheever
location= New York
publisher= Simon & Schuster/ Washington Square Press
id= auto isbn|0|7|4|3|4|0|5|9|1|0-7434-0591 (paperback)

* cite book
url =
title = Alcoholics Anonymous. The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism
location = New York
publisher = Alcoholics Anonymous
edition = 4th ed. new and rev. 2001
id = ISBN 1-893007-16-2, Dewey 362.29 A347 2001
('Big Book')
* cite book
title = Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age
location = New York
publisher = Alcoholics Anonymous
id = ISBN 0-916856-02-X, LC HV5278.A78A4, Dewey: 178.1 A1c

* cite book
title = As Bill Sees It
location = New York
publisher = Alcoholics Anonymous
year = 1967
id = ISBN 0-916856-03-8, Dewey 616.861 ASB

* cite book
author = Bill W.
title = My First 40 Years. An Autobiography by the Cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous
location = Center City, Minnesota
publisher = Hazelden, 55012-0176
year = 2000
id = ISBN 1-56838-373-8, Dewey B W11w 2000

* cite book
title = Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers
location = New York
publisher = Alcoholics Anonymous
year = 1980
id = ISBN 0-916856-07-0, LCCN 80-65962, LC HV5278.D62 1980

* cite book
first = Francis
last = Hartigan
title = Bill W. A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson
location = New York
publisher = Thomas Dunne Books
year = 2000
id = ISBN 0-312-20056-0, Dewey B W11h 2000

* cite book
first = Ernest
last = Kurtz
title = Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous
location = Center City, Minnesota
publisher = Hazelden
year = 1979
id = ISBN 0-89486-065-8 or ISBN 0-89486-065-8 (pbk.), LC HV5278, LCCN 79-88264, Dewey 362.2/9286 or 362.29286 K87 1979

* cite book
title = Pass It On: The story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world
location = New York
publisher = Alcoholics Anonymous
year = 1984
id = ISBN 0-916856-12-7, LC HV5032 .W19P37x 1984, LCCN 84-072766, Dewey 362.29/286/O92

* cite book
first = Matthew J.
last = Raphael
title = Bill W. and Mr. Wilson: The Legend and Life of A.A.'s Cofounder
location = Amherst, Massachusetts
publisher = University of Massachusetts Press
year = 2000
id = ISBN 1-55849-245-3

* cite book
first = Robert
last = Thomsen
title = Bill W.
location = New York
publisher = Harper & Rowe
year = 1975
id = ISBN 0-06-014267-7, Dewey 362.29 W112t

* cite book
title = Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
location = New York
publisher = Alcoholics Anonymous
year = 1953
id = ISBN 0-916856-01-1


NAME=Wilson, Bill
ALTERNATIVE NAMES=W., Bill (Common referent); Wilson, William Griffith (full name)
SHORT DESCRIPTION=Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous
DATE OF BIRTH=26 November 1895
PLACE OF BIRTH=Dorset, Vermont, United States
DATE OF DEATH=24 January 1971
PLACE OF DEATH=Miami, Florida, United States

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