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 an area that had a bar of his grandparents’ inn. This inauspicious but curiously suggestive birth would produce the man who decades later both Time and Life magazines would honor as one of the 100 most influential figures of the 20th century. In Time, he was listed in the section of “healers” along with Mother Teresa and others.
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 named Bertha Banford, whom he intended to marry, sunk Bill into a depression so severe that he was unable to graduate. Speaking about this loss years later, Bill wondered how he survived it.
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 older than Bill. Despite this difference, after a few years the two eventually grew attracted and became romantically involved.
Bill eventually enrolled in Norwich University, a military college in Northfield, Vermont, known as the “West Point of New England.” His focus was engineering. Norwich prepared him well for World War I. Bill and his classmates were activated before graduation to join the United States Army Coast Artillery Corps in 1917 and advanced through training in Plattsburgh, New York, where he displayed an innate talent for leadership. That led to additional training at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and commission as a second lieutenant.
After a secret engagement followed by a public engagement, he married Lois shortly before leaving for duty overseas. They married in Lois’ family’s Swedenborgian Church in Brooklyn Heights on January 24, 1918. Bill also began drinking before he left for Europe.
Waiting in England for deployment to France for World War I, Bill's regiment was bivouacked near Winchester, where, one afternoon, he visited that city's great cathedral. While at Winchester Cathedral, he had an ecstatic experience of the overwhelming presence of God, which filled and reassured him as no other experience had ever done before.
Walking through the cathedral's cemetery, he saw the tombstone of Thomas Thetcher, who Bill thought might be an ancestor of his friend, Ebby Thacher. Bill was so amazed by the epitaph on Thetcher’s gravestone that he remembered it over a decade later while writing his own story for the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. The stone reads, “Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier, Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer…An honest soldier never is forgot, Whether he die by Musket or by Pot.”
Although Bill did not experience heavy fighting during the war, he did distinguish himself in service. Upon discharge, the men he served with gave him an engraved pocket watch as a special gift. (This is a special item among the 10,000 in Stepping Stones object collection today.) Bill returned to Brooklyn, eventually securing a position in a surety company while at the same time taking night courses in economics and pursuing a law degree at night at Brooklyn Law School. Bill's drinking prevented him from finishing his final legal coursework. (The irony is that years later, Bill, being mindful of A.A. Traditions, declined an honorary law degree from Yale.)
Bill chose to work on Wall Street and, for a time, was quite successful, providing critical information about businesses to brokerage houses. He was drinking during this period, often heavily, but the brokers were making money based on Bill’s information that most tolerated it.
Toward the end of the decade, however, Bill's drinking worsened to the point where it alarmed his wife and business associates, the latter began to turn away from him. When the market crashed in 1929, Bill knew times would get much harder.
In the late 1920s, Lois and Bill were no longer able to afford an apartment of their own. They moved into Lois' childhood home—the home of her parents, Dr. Clark and Matilda Burnham. Matilda passed away and Dr. Burnham remarried and moved to a new home. While living in the house alone with Lois, Bill descended into a chronic and desperate state of alcoholism.
Considered by himself and others to be hopeless, Bill was visited in late 1934 by his old friend Ebby Thacher, who Bill knew to be a hardened alcoholic but who was miraculously sober.
Ebby shared with Bill that he had stopped drinking through his association with the Oxford Group, a spiritual fellowship, and that Bill could also get sober with its help.
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. The principles they considered “absolutes” for daily living, were honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love. They encouraged helping others as well as seeking guidance from God and checking it with a trusted fellow group member.
“Oxford Groupers,” as they were called, had success with people such as Ebby who were trying to stop drinking. When Ebby, an incessant drinker, was sober for two months, he went to visit the worst alcoholic he knew, with the intention of passing on his spiritual experience and its result. That alcoholic was Bill Wilson.
Bill recounted offering Ebby a gin and pineapple juice as that they sat in Brooklyn Heights at the kitchen table—the table Bill later moved to the kitchen at Stepping Stones. Ebby refused the drink. He had stopped imbibing alcohol, and by Bill’s account Ebby said, "I've got religion."
Bill was resistant to Ebby's spiritual program, debating the existence of God and certain religious concepts. But when an exasperated Ebby asked Bill, "Why don't you choose your own conception of God?," Bill could no longer argue. He began to become open to a larger notion of God and to a power greater than himself. (Some credit Ebby's statement, translated later in A.A.'s steps as "God as we understood him" as what enabled those from all sorts of religious backgrounds and those without any to avail themselves of "this simple program." A.A. 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 up the possibility of sobriety. Entering Towns Hospital on Central Park West in Manhattan on December 11, 1934, Bill's life was utterly changed by a transformative spiritual experience followed by lifelong sobriety.
Bill’s recovery was helped by Towns’ psychiatrist William D. Silkworth (lovingly nicknamed “Silky” and “the little doctor who loved drunks” by A.A.s), who believed that alcoholism was a physical allergy to alcohol and not a moral failure. This allergy was triggered by the consumption of even a small amount of alcohol causing 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 had a new outlook on life. 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 appeared futile. At first, no one was getting sober. That all eventually changed.
After a few months of sobriety, Bill and a couple of friends found a small company in Akron, Ohio, that was ripe for takeover and would, they believe, pull Bill and Lois out of their severe financial situation. It was not to be.
After much time and effort in Akron, the deal was on the brink of collapse. Bill, dejected and distressed, was in Akron’s Mayflower Hotel where he nearly drank. Tempted by the lure of the bar, Bill instead headed to the public phone to seek out another alcoholic, someone like himself to talk to. After a series of calls to pastors listed on a church directory, Bill eventually contacted Episcopal Reverend Walter Tunks. He put Bill in touch with Henrietta Sieberling who had been praying for a drinker named Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, an Akron proctologist, surgeon and occasional attendee at Oxford Group meetings.
Dr. Bob agreed to meet with Bill only to appease his wife Anne Smith. Dr. Bob was determined to spend no more than 15 minutes with this stranger who claimed to have a "cure" for alcoholism. Inside Henrietta’s gate house, the two men went into a room for what Bob thought would be a quick talk, but he was mistaken. The conversation ended five hours later and was the start of a lifelong friendship.
Bill stayed in Ohio for three months, working with Bob to help get others sober. Bob drank once again a couple of weeks later after coming home from a medical conference in New Jersey. Shortly thereafter Bill and Bob began to set about to help others. The date widely celebrated as A.A.’s founding is June 10, 1935, known as “Founders’ Day.”
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 on the flourishing of one of the greatest social organizations ever known, Alcoholics Anonymous. A role he never imagined in his youth, Bill’s efforts helped with the growth and development of the fellowship, literature, and service structure that remain today. The fledgling years of the fellowship where newly sober volunteers set about to form groups and share a message of recovery was dubbed by Bill as the “flying blind period.”
Bill was the major proponent of the idea that greater numbers of alcoholics could be helped if the recovery program could be captured in a book. The book project was favored by New York members, but it took some convincing for those in Ohio to get on board. Most scholars consider Bill the primary writer of that book, Alcoholics Anonymous (also known as “The Big Book”), after which the group would name itself with its publication in 1939.
Bill prepared most of the first 164 pages of the Big Book, which many refer to as the “basic text” of the A.A. program especially because it includes the “12 Steps” of recovery. He also edited, compiled, and cajoled people to provide stories for the personal accounts that comprise most of the remainder of the volume. Businessman and fellow ex-drunk Hank Parkhurst played a key role in a range of book matters – from the idea of selling stock certificates to fund the publication to being a proponent of inclusive language regarding spiritual beliefs.
The Big Book was followed by the books Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, As Bill Sees It, and A.A. Comes of Age, along with many pamphlets, speeches and about 150 A.A. Grapevine articles. As of 2020, more than 60 million copies of the books Bill was involved in have been printed in English alone.
In January 1971, Bill was flown in a private jet to the Miami Heart Institute in the hope of that another treatment might stave off the severe symptoms of his emphysema. He is said to have been in good spirits during the flight but much weakened.
At an A.A. anniversary party held in his honor two months before his death, Lois read a message from Bill with a salutation he liked that read, "I salute you, and I thank you for your lives." For those in the audience, the sentiment was undoubtedly mutual.
Today, the membership of Alcoholics Anonymous is estimated at over 2 million worldwide. Hundreds of other 12-Step fellowships have followed in A.A.’s footsteps to help with other challenges.
In 1990, Life magazine named Bill W. one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century. In 1999, Time magazine selected him as one of the 100 most influential people of the century listing him in the “Heroes & Icons” section along with such figures as Jackie Robinson and Mother Teresa.