William Griffith Wilson was born in East Dorset, Vermont on November 26, 1895 to Gilman and Emily Griffith Wilson in the middle of a snowstorm and behind the bar of his grandparents' hotel. This inauspicious but curiously suggestive birth would produce the man who decades later both Time and Life magazines would honor as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
Bill had a sister, Dorothy, who was four years younger than he. Bill's otherwise happy childhood in rural Vermont was shattered when, at the age of 11, his parents divorced. This trauma was accompanied by feelings of abandonment when his father moved to British Columbia and his mother to Boston where she studied osteopathic medicine and was one of the first women to receive a degree from Harvard University. It was around this time that Bill experienced the first of a series of depressions that he faced throughout his life.
Bill's maternal grandparents, Fayette and Ella Griffith, prominent in their small New England town, raised him and his younger sister, Dorothy. Fayette doted on his grandchildren. He was especially concerned with Bill whom he realized needed intellectual stimulation and challenges which he encouraged. These ranged from reading literature and teaching himself to play the violin, to making a boomerang after Grandfather Griffith told him that no one but native Australians could make and throw one. After a six-month effort, Bill proudly demonstrated to Fayette a bona fide working boomerang.
Bill's confidence grew as a high-school student at the Burr and Burton School in nearby Manchester, Vermont, where he emerged as a class leader and eventual senior-class president. But the unexpected death of a beloved girl he intended to marry sunk Bill into a depression so severe he was unable to graduate. Speaking about this loss years later, Bill wondered how he survived it.
BILL MEETS LOIS
In 1913, Bill's life took an upward turn when he was introduced to Lois Burnham of Brooklyn Heights, New York, the daughter of a respected physician. Lois, who summered in Vermont with her parents and four siblings, was four years Bill's senior. Despite this difference, the two were attracted to each other, though they did not become romantically involved for a few years. Bill eventually enrolled in Norwich University, a military college, which prepared him well for World War I. Bill left shortly before graduation to join Coast Artillery in 1917 and advanced through training in Plattsburgh, New York, where he discovered an innate talent for leadership. That led to additional training at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and a commission as second lieutenant.
Shortly before Bill embarked for duty overseas, he married Lois in the Swedenborgen Church in Brooklyn Heights on January 24, 1918. Waiting in England for deployment to France, Bill's regiment was bivouacked near Winchester, England, and Bill one afternoon visited that city's great cathedral. While there, Bill had an ecstatic experience of the overwhelming presence of God, which filled and reassured him as no other experience had ever done. Upon walking through the cathedral's cemetery, he saw to the tombstone of Thomas Thetcher who Bill thought might be an ancestor of his friend Ebby Thatcher. Bill was so amazed by the epitaph written there that he remembered it years later while writing his own story for the book Alcoholics Anonymous: "Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier/ Who caught his death/ Drinking small cold beer./ A good soldier is ne'er forgot/ Whether he dieth by musket/ Or by pot".
Although Bill did not see heavy fighting, he did distinguish himself in service. Upon discharge, he returned to Brooklyn, eventually securing a position in a surety company and taking night courses in economics and law. Bill's potential law career ended when intoxication prevented him from finishing his final exam. (The irony is that years later Bill, being mindful of AA traditions, declined an honorary law degree from Yale.)
Bill chose to work on Wall Street and became quite a success providing critical information about companies to brokerage houses. He was drinking at this time, often heavily, but the brokers were making so much money based on what Bill was filing that they tolerated it. However, toward the end of the decade Bill's drinking worsened to the point where it alarmed his wife and business associates, who eventually avoided him. When the market crashed in 1929, he knew times would get much harder.
DESCENT INTO ALCOHOLISM
In the 1920s, Lois and Bill moved into the home of Lois' parents, Dr. Clark and Matilda Burnham. There, a few years later living in the house alone with Lois, Bill would descend into chronic and desperate alcoholism. Considered by himself and others to be hopeless, Bill was visited in November 1934 by his old friend Ebby, who Bill knew to be a severe alcoholic but who was miraculously sober. Ebby told Bill that he had stopped drinking through his association with the Oxford Group, a spiritual fellowship, and that Bill also could get sober with the help of the group.
The Oxford Group was a spiritual fellowship popular in the early half of the 20th century. It had no membership, dues, paid leaders, creed, or theology. Its appeal laid in the application of certain principles in daily living, namely honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Oxford Groupers, as they were called, had success with those trying to stop drinking, such as Ebby. When he, an incessant drinker, was sober two months, he went to visit the worst alcoholic he knew to pass on his spiritual experience and its result. That alcoholic was Bill Wilson. They sat at the kitchen table in Brooklyn Heights (this table is now at Stepping Stones) on which Bill had placed gin and pineapple juice, but Ebby refused to imbibe. He had stopped drinking, explaining, "I've got religion."
Bill was resistant to Ebby's spiritual program arguing the existence of God and certain religious concepts. But when an exasperated Ebby asked Bill, "Why don't you chose your own conception of God?", he could argue no longer and gradually opened to a larger notion of God, of a Power greater than himself. (It was Ebby's statement, translated later in AA's steps as "God as we understood Him", that has enabled those from all sorts of religious backgrounds and those without any to avail themselves of "this simple program." AA is spiritual, not religious, and its members' conception of God is personal and, at times, unique.)
Although Bill's drinking continued, Ebby's visit opened an avenue of possibility of sobriety. Entering Towns Hospital in December 1934, Bill's life was utterly changed by a transforming spiritual experience that resulted in his never needing to take another drink of alcohol for the rest of his life.
Bill was also aided by Towns psychiatrist William D. Silkworth, who believed that alcoholism was a physical allergy to alcohol and not a moral malady. This allergy was triggered by consumption of even a small amount of alcohol by some people that caused a compulsion to drink along with a mental obsession to do so. This concept was so new at the time that when Bill asked Dr. Silkworth to expand on it in "The Doctor's Opinion" for the book Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Silkworth did so anonymously. It was only years later, when this theory gained acceptance, that he allowed his name to be used.
When Bill left Towns Hospital, he was a man reborn. Fired with his "mountaintop" experience, he searched the streets and bars of Brooklyn looking for others to help. Despite his ardor to help other alcoholics, his efforts were futile; no one was getting sober.
BILL MEETS DR. BOB
Six months into his own sobriety, Bill and a couple of friends found a small company in Akron, Ohio that was ripe for takeover and would pull Bill and Lois out of their severe financial situation. It was not to be. The deal collapsed, probably on stories of Bill's drinking, and Bill, dejected and distressed, returned to the city's Mayflower Hotel where he nearly drank again.
Tempted by the lure of the bar, Bill headed to the public phone booth instead and desperately sought another alcoholic, someone like himself to talk to. After a series of calls Bill eventually contacted one Dr. Robert H. Smith, an Akron surgeon and sometime attendee at Oxford Group meetings. Agreeing to the meeting only to appease Anne, his wife, Dr. Bob was determined to spend no more than 15 minutes with this man who claimed to have a "cure" for alcoholism. The two men went into a room for what Bob thought would be a quick talk, but he was mistaken. They finally stopped talking about five hours later.
Bill stayed in Ohio three months working with Bob to help get other men sober. Bob drank once again a couple of weeks later after coming home from a medical conference in New Jersey. The date of Dr. Bob's last drink is June 10, 1935 - the founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous, the day there were two sober people in fellowship, and the day Dr. Bob drank for the last time.
Through the tireless efforts of the two men, others joined them and the small group of sober alcoholics grew person by person, group by group. (The story of AA can be read in publications such as AA Comes of Age, available through Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. It provides a rich account of a fascinating history.)
Bill returned to Brooklyn Heights. His work there took hold and the movement grew. In the early days, alcoholics participated in the Oxford Group as their means of fellowship and growth. Alcoholics comprised most of the membership in some groups. In 1937, the growing awareness that an organization of alcoholics-only was needed resulted in the official creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, "a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism."
The cornerstone of AA is the Twelve Steps, a spiritual program of recovery, written by Bill who expanded it from the basic six tennets of the Oxford Group. Bill would later write the Twelve Traditions, a guide for fellowship members on how to avoid the pitfalls to which other groups had succumbed. The traditions are to the groups of AA as the steps are to the individual and are designed to keep AA as a whole vibrant and focused on "our primary purpose."
Bill was 40 years old when he stopped drinking. He would remain sober for the remaining 35 years of his life, spending most of his considerable energy and mental acumen in helping create one of the greatest social organizations ever known, Alcoholics Anonymous. He also would be the major writer of the book Alcoholics Anonymous (aka The Big Book), after which the group would name itself; Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions; and numerous articles and pamphlets.
In January 1971, Bill was flown in a private jet to the Miami Heart Institute in hopes of finding treatment for his severe emphysema. He is said to have been in good spirits during the flight but much weakened. Bill never received treatment; he died the day he arrived--January 24, his and Lois' wedding anniversary. They had been married 53 years.
Bill's last address to the huge annual anniversary party held in his honor in New York City two months before he died was delivered by Lois, since Bill was very ill and unable to attend. His message was based on an Arabian salutation: "I salute you, and I thank you for your lives." For those in the audience, the sentiment was undoubtedly mutual.