Bill Wilson (1895–1971)

In the 21st century, it is hard to believe that the United States once outlawed alcohol completely for 13 years, requiring an amendment to the U.S. Constitution and lasting from 1920 to 1933. The sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages were banned by the 18th Amendment and the period became known as Prohibition. The Women’s Christian Temperance Association, which had campaigned for years for such legal action, rejoiced that families, especially women and children, might at last be free from the ills—poverty, crime, domestic violence—of alcohol.

However, alcohol still flowed quite freely in the United States during Prohibition, thanks to the development of a massive underground industry of bootleggers and criminals who managed to smuggle in ample amounts of liquor despite the law. Thousands of speakeasies—clandestine bars where you needed a password to get in and had to “speak easy” to order—served alcoholic beverages. While the police made well-publicized efforts to crack down, mostly they were overwhelmed or just looking the other way. The Mafia gained a stronghold and made a fortune smuggling booze and operating speakeasies. Meanwhile, many Americans made their own beer, wine, and liquor right at home.

Faced with the failure of Prohibition, the crime it had spawned, and the displeasure of the American people, Congress proposed in 1933 to repeal the 18th Amendment, and by the end of the year enough states had ratified the 21st Amendment to the Constitution to pass it and repeal Prohibition in January 1934.

By the time Prohibition ended, the man who would one day found Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and show Americans what alcohol addiction was all about, William Griffith Wilson—Bill W. as he would be known—was already a full-blown alcoholic. He was a Wall Street broker but he drank so much that he could not hold a job and was frequently in a hospital drying out. Wilson had grown up in Vermont, a temperance state at the time, and he had heard plenty about the evils of alcohol because American schools then were under legal obligation to teach abstinence from alcohol to their students. None of this kept him from drinking. He had his first drink at 22 and later wrote, “I had found the elixir of life. Even that first evening I got thoroughly drunk, and within the next time or two I passed out completely.”

Former stock broker Bill Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous, a worldwide orga-nization to help alcoholics quit drinking, in 1935. Today it has over two million members in 150 countries.

Former stock broker Bill Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous, a worldwide organization to help alcoholics quit drinking, in 1935. Today it has over two million members in 150 countries. (AP Photo/Craig Line)

He drank that way for the next 17 years, losing his reputation and his livelihood and along the way desperately trying to quit drinking. Though he had gone to law school, he was too drunk to go pick up the diploma. He showed talent as a stock speculator, but his drinking bouts kept him from holding down a job. His loyal and long-suffering wife, Lois Burnham, stuck by him even as their house went into foreclosure and his drinking continued:

Liquor ceased to be a luxury; it became a necessity. “Bathtub” gin, two bottles a day, and often three, got to be routine. Sometimes a small deal would net a few hundred dollars, and I would pay my bills at the bars and delicatessens. This went on endlessly, and I began to waken very early in the morning shaking violently. A tumbler of gin followed by half a dozen bottles of beer would be required if I were to eat any breakfast. (From “Bill’s Story” in the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous)

Wilson finally got sober in 1934. He was 39 years old, out of work, and back for the fourth time at the Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions in Manhattan. His doctor, William D. Silkworth, told him that at this point, he was either going to die from his addiction or be permanently institutionalized with wet brain. As Wilson described it, lying on his hospital bed he cried out, “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself.” He said that suddenly a white light filled the room and a feeling of ecstasy and serenity came over him. It was a transforming spiritual experience. He never drank again.

Wilson went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous, today a worldwide organization to help alcoholics quit drinking, with more than 115,773 groups and an estimated 2 million members in more than 150 countries. For his success, Time magazine named Wilson in the top 20 of the 20th century’s 100 Heroes and Icons. His friend, novelist Aldous Huxley, called him “the greatest social architect of our century” for founding an addiction program that helped millions of alcoholics get sober and rebuild their lives. His wife Lois later founded Al-Anon, a similar organization to help the spouses, children, and other relatives of alcoholics cope with their situation.

According to a 2010 Gallup poll, the rate of alcohol consumption in the United States reached a 25-year high at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Sixty-seven percent of U.S. adults polled said they drink alcohol, the highest percentage since 1985. Americans’ favorite alcoholic beverage was beer, followed by wine and hard liquor. In a 2007 Gallup poll, one in five Americans said they occasionally drank too much, including 40 percent of men under 30. Although it is difficult to get an accurate count, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that there are approximately 17.6 million alcoholics in the United States.

Alcoholic beverages seem to have always been part of human history. Probably alcohol was discovered accidentally when fruit or juice fermented. Archeologists have unearthed Stone Age beer jugs and evidence of fermented beverages from as long ago as the Neolithic period of 10,000 BCE. The Egyptians made and enjoyed wine, as their tomb paintings show, and Greeks and Romans were famous wine drinkers as well. Medieval monks were said to have produced some of the finest beer and wine in their monasteries. The growth of wealth and prosperity in Europe and the United States made alcohol part of the social fabric and profitable to produce. Ireland was the first to invent whiskey, an alcohol produced from grain, and gin made from juniper berries was a Dutch then a French and an English beverage. The growth of alcohol sales and consumption, however, meant that drunkenness became a social problem, condemned by the church and viewed as sinful.

Indeed that was one of the persistent misconceptions about alcoholism that Wilson fought to change, the idea that drunkenness was a moral failing, a matter of weak character and will power. Alcoholism today is regarded as similar to a chronic disease, but characterized by mental obsession. The American Medical Association defines it thus:

Alcoholism is a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by continuous or periodic impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial. (Journal of the American Medical Association, 1992)

On the other hand, the definition in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association focuses more on the psychological aspects of abuse and dependence:

A maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by one (or more) of the following, occurring within a 12-month period:

  1. recurrent substance use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, home (e.g., repeated absences or poor work performance related to substance use; substance-related absences, suspensions, or expulsions from school; neglect of children or household)
  2. recurrent substance use in situations in which it is physically hazardous (e.g., driving an automobile or operating a machine when impaired by substance use)
  3. recurrent substance-related legal problems (e.g., arrests for substance-related disorderly conduct)
  4. continued substance use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of the substance (e.g., arguments with spouse about consequences of intoxication, physical fights)

The causes of alcoholism are complex, and may involve genetics as well as physical, social, and psychological factors. Increasingly, drugs have become part of the addiction picture along with alcoholism. The organization of Alcoholics Anonymous itself does not officially define alcoholism as a disease, calling it instead, according to Wilson, “an illness or malady... which only a spiritual experience will conquer.”

Bill W.’s journey in sobriety and eventual founding of Alcoholics Anonymous began on a business trip in 1935 to Akron, Ohio, when, sober barely six months, he found himself attracted by the lights and party sounds at the bar in the Mayflower Hotel and thought about joining the crowd. But instead of going into the bar and having a drink, Wilson wrote later, he decided that the only way he could stay sober that night was to find and help another alcoholic. He called a local minister who offered some names and phone numbers and Wilson called them all. Eventually, he met up with Dr. Bob Smith, a local physician who had lost his post at the Akron Hospital because of the drinking he could not stop or control. Something clicked. Apparently they talked into the night. Dr. Bob had his last drink on June 5, 1935, which marks the official founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous when he and Bill W. joined forces to help other alcoholics.

Many of the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous grew out of Bill Wilson’s initial association with the Oxford Group, a spiritual, nondenominational Christian organization active in the 1930s that advocated individual responsibility, the surrender to God, and the sharing of personal spiritual experiences. Coupled with Wilson’s own Vermont pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps background, what he learned by attending Oxford Group meetings strongly influenced the way AA principles took shape. The admission of powerlessness over alcohol and the surrender to a Higher Power, the first two of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, were adopted from Oxford Group ideas. The Twelve Steps themselves, now also used by organizations for other kinds of addiction, include elements that are found in many religions: confession, admission of wrongdoing, making amends to those harmed, and helping others.

The goal of the steps was not only to stop drinking but to change one’s life and habits of mind as well. Real sobriety, Wilson thought, would come only from a person’s radical change of attitude and from a reliance on something other than him or herself to stay sober, whether it be God or the AA group itself. In addition, the fellowship and discussion with other alcoholics found in the small groups of Alcoholics Anonymous offered support for those struggling to quit drinking. That, in fact, was the sole requirement for membership in AA: “a desire to stop drinking.”

The key to recovery in AA seemed to be the association with other alcoholics and the chance to share experience with them. Meetings where members can get together with other alcoholics, hear speakers, and learn about the Twelve Steps can now be found in most U.S. towns and cities, at all hours of the day, and are often held in church parish houses and community centers. Meetings are listed today on the AA Web site or found by phoning local AA phone numbers, whether in the United States or around the world.

Although the Alcoholics Anonymous General Services Council does not make estimates on recovery rates, its most recent Membership Survey of AA groups (2007) notes that 33 percent of members have 10 years of sobriety or more, with 24 percent maintaining sobriety for 1 to 5 years, and a membership average of 8 years’ sobriety overall. Fifty percent of members are of ages 41 to 60, with 12 percent of members of ages 21 to 30. Sixty-seven percent of AA members are men, but increasingly women have joined, now making up 33 percent of the membership.

It became apparent to Bill Wilson in the beginning that alcoholics would not live happily with rules or become sober under regulations. As an organization, Alcoholics Anonymous is unusual for its loose structure and lack of hierarchy. There is no phalanx of top-level leadership, only a General Service Council, which organizes conventions and distributes literature. Each AA group is self-governing and self-supporting, and no individual can contribute more than $3,000 a year to Alcoholics Anonymous. There are no dues or fees for membership. Wilson, working with other AA members, established the Twelve Traditions, the guidelines for how Alcoholics Anonymous groups would function. Anonymity became the central tradition, “the spiritual foundation of all our traditions.” Wilson even refused an honorary degree from Yale and turned down Time magazine’s request to put his picture on its cover because of the 11th Tradition:

Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.

With the help of other AA members, Wilson wrote a book, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism. Published in 1969, it became known as “the Big Book” in AA (the subtitle of later editions was “The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Recovered from Alcoholism”) and is considered its bible. Sales of this book and support from philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller Jr. gave Alcoholics Anonymous a financial start.

Bill Wilson was born on November 26, 1895, and raised in East Dorset, Vermont. His father, Gilman Wilson, ran the inn in town, where his mother, Emily Griffith, also worked, along with taking care of Bill and his sister. But when Wilson was 10 years old, his father left on a business trip and never returned. Soon after, his mother decided to move to Boston to study osteopathic medicine, taking his sister with her but virtually abandoning her son to be raised by her parents in East Dorset. It was a sad start for a 10-year-old boy. Wilson suffered from depression all his life. Nonetheless, he did well enough in school to be admitted to a private boarding school in Manchester where he was captain of the football team and principal violinist in the school orchestra.

He went on to Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, but his college education was interrupted by World War I when he was called up by the U.S. Army, becoming a second lieutenant. He married Lois Burnham in 1918 just before he was shipped out to serve in England and France. When the war was over, they set up housekeeping in Brooklyn, New York, and Wilson became a security analyst on Wall Street. But by this time, his drinking, begun while he was in the service, had escalated. He went broke in the stock market crash of 1929 but somehow managed to put his finances back together and save their house from foreclosure. Meanwhile, he was in and out of hospitals, drying out and being treated for alcoholism. It was in his fourth and last visit to the Charles B. Towns Hospital that he had the spiritual experience that he said led him to sobriety.

For a time as Wilson and Dr. Bob struggled to establish Alcoholics Anonymous and figure out what it should be, Bill W. and Lois opened their home in Brooklyn to alcoholics needing help. Eventually they did lose the house and had to spend two years living with friends and relatives until they found a place in Bedford Hills, New York, they could afford to buy. This became the center for their AA activities; now it is a museum of AA and Bill Wilson memorabilia named “Stepping Stones” and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Bill Wilson lived there until he died in 1971. He is buried in East Dorset, Vermont.

—Mary Cross


Alcoholics Anonymous. 4th ed. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2002.

Cheever, Susan. My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson: His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: Washington Square Press, 2004.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. 46th ed. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2002.