Bill Wilson was recognized as one of
The Top 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century
by Time Magazine.
Here is the full Time Magazine Article
From the rubble of a wasted life, he
overcame alcoholism and founded the 12-step
program that has helped millions of others do the
Second Lieut. Bill Wilson didn't think twice
when the first butler he had ever seen offered him
a drink. The 22-year-old soldier didn't think
about how alcohol had destroyed his family. He
didn't think about the Yankee temperance movement
of his childhood or his loving fiance Lois Burnham
or his emerging talent for leadership. He didn't
think about anything at all. "I had found the
elixir of life," he wrote. Wilson's last
drink, 17 years later, when alcohol had destroyed
his health and his career, precipitated an
epiphany that would change his life and the lives
of millions of other alcoholics. Incarcerated for
the fourth time at Manhattan's Towns Hospital in
1934, Wilson had a spiritual awakening--a flash of
white light, a liberating awareness of God--that
led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and
Wilson's revolutionary 12-step program, the
successful remedy for alcoholism. The 12 steps
have also generated successful programs for eating
disorders, gambling, narcotics, debting, sex
addiction and people affected by others'
addictions. Aldous Huxley called him "the
greatest social architect of our century."
William Griffith Wilson grew up in a quarry
town in Vermont. When he was 10, his hard-drinking
father headed for Canada, and his mother moved to
Boston, leaving the sickly child with her parents.
As a soldier, and then as a businessman, Wilson
drank to alleviate his depressions and to
celebrate his Wall Street success. Married in
1918, he and Lois toured the country on a
motorcycle and appeared to be a prosperous,
promising young couple. By 1933, however, they
were living on charity in her parents' house on
Clinton Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. Wilson had become
an unemployable drunk who disdained religion and
even panhandled for cash.
Inspired by a friend who had stopped drinking,
Wilson went to meetings of the Oxford Group, an
evangelical society founded in Britain by
Pennsylvania Frank Buchman. And as Wilson
underwent a barbiturate-and-belladonna cure called
"purge and puke," which was
state-of-the-art alcoholism treatment at the time,
his brain spun with phrases from Oxford Group
meetings, Carl Jung and William James'
"Varieties of Religious Experience,"
which he read in the hospital. Five sober months
later, Wilson went to Akron, Ohio, on business.
The deal fell through, and he wanted a drink. He
stood in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel,
entranced by the sounds of the bar across the
hall. Suddenly he became convinced that by helping
another alcoholic, he could save himself.
THE WILSON HOUSE
Nov. 26, 1895, in East Dorset, Vt.
Marries Lois Burnham. In 1951 she founds Al-Anon
for families of alcoholics
First of four hospitalizations for alcoholism
Takes his last drink
Persuades Dr. Robert Smith to stay sober with him.
This is the first A.A. meeting
Forms the Alcoholics Foundation
Publishes the book "Alcoholics
Anonymous," which includes the 12 steps
Publishes "Twelve Steps and Twelve
Traditions," outlining a structure for A.A.
24, 1971, of pneumonia, in Miami
Bill Wilson's diary of his alcoholic journey
Call: Faces of Alcoholism
TIME Online photo essay
The official AA web site
Audio of Bill W. is provided courtesy of Alcoholics
Through a series of desperate telephone
calls, he found Dr. Robert Smith, a skeptical
drunk whose family persuaded him to give Wilson
15 minutes. Their meeting lasted for hours. A
month later, Dr. Bob had his last drink, and
that date, June 10, 1935, is the official birth
date of A.A., which is based on the idea that
only an alcoholic can help another alcoholic.
"Because of our kinship in suffering,"
Bill wrote, "our channels of contact have
always been charged with the language of the
The Burnham house on Clinton Street became a
haven for drunks. "My name is Bill W., and
I'm an alcoholic," he told assorted
houseguests and visitors at meetings. To spread
the word, he began writing down his principles
for sobriety. Each chapter was read by the
Clinton Street group and sent to Smith in Akron
for more editing. The book had a dozen
provisional titles, among them "The Way
Out" and "The Empty Glass."
Edited to 400 pages, it was finally called
"Alcoholics Anonymous," and this
became the group's name.
But the book, although well reviewed, wasn't
selling. Wilson tried unsuccessfully to make a
living as a wire-rope salesman. A.A. had about a
hundred members, but many were still drinking.
Meanwhile, in 1939, the bank foreclosed on the
Clinton Street house, and the couple began years
of homelessness, living as guests in borrowed
rooms and at one point staying in temporary
quarters above the A.A. clubhouse on 24th Street
in Manhattan. In 1940 John D. Rockefeller Jr.
held an A.A. dinner and was impressed enough to
create a trust to provide Wilson with $30 a
week--but no more. The tycoon felt that money
would corrupt the group's spirit.
Then, in March 1941, The Saturday Evening
Post published an article on A.A., and suddenly
thousands of letters and requests poured in.
Attendance at meetings doubled and tripled.
Wilson had reached his audience. In "Twelve
Traditions," Wilson set down the suggested
bylaws of Alcoholics Anonymous. In them, he
created an enduring blueprint for an
organization with a maximum of individual
freedom and no accumulation of power or money.
Public anonymity ensured humility. No
contributions were required; no member could
contribute more than $1,000.
"I had to be first in everything because in
my perverse heart I felt myself the least of
-- BILL WILSON, describing his alcoholism
Today more than 2 million A.A. members in
150 countries hold meetings in church
basements, hospital conference rooms and
school gyms, following Wilson's informal
structure. Members identify themselves as
alcoholics and share their stories; there are
no rules or entry requirements, and many
members use only first names.
Wilson believed the key to sobriety was a
change of heart. The suggested 12 steps
include an admission of powerlessness, a moral
inventory, a restitution for harm done, a call
to service and a surrender to some personal
God. In A.A., God can be anything from a
radiator to a patriarch. Influenced by A.A.,
the American Medical Association has redefined
alcoholism as a chronic disease, not a failure
As Alcoholics Anonymous grew, Wilson became
its principal symbol. He helped create a
governing structure for the program, the
General Service Board, and turned over his
power. "I have become a pupil of the A.A.
movement rather than the teacher," he
wrote. A smoker into his 70s, he died of
pneumonia and emphysema in Miami, where he
went for treatment in 1971. To the end, he
clung to the principles and the power of
anonymity. He was always Bill W., refusing to
take money for counseling and leadership. He
turned down many honors, including a degree
from Yale. And he declined this magazine's
offer to put him on the cover--even with his
Susan Cheever, a novelist
and memoirist, is the author of "Note
Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker"
"In the wake of my spiritual experience
there came a vision of a society of
-- BILL WILSON, writing to Carl Jung in 1961
a letter to the editor!