Bill W. of Alcoholics Anonymous Dies – 50th Anniversary of Co-Founder’s Death

Note from the Editor: January 24, 2021 marked fifty years since the passing of one of our beloved co-founders, Bill W. Below is a reprint of his obituary first published in the New York Times on January 26, 1971. In remembrance of him and one of his favorite prayers, may we all be “instruments of peace” in his memory as we move forward carrying the message to the next suffering alcoholic. 

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William Griffith Wilson died late Sunday night and, with the announcement of his death, was revealed to have been the Bill W. who was a co‐founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. His age was 75.

The retired Wall Street securi ties analyst had expected to die or go insane as a hopeless drunk 36 years ago but — after what he called a dramatic spiritual experience — had sobered up and stayed sober. He leaves a program of recov ery as a legacy to 475,000 acknowledged alcoholics in 15, 000 A.A. groups throughout the United States and in 88 other countries.

Mr. Wilson, whose twangy voice and economy of words reflected his New England ori gin, died of pneumonia and cardiac complications a feW hours after he had been flown by private plane to the Miami Heart Institute in Miami Beach from his home in Bedford Hills, N. Y.

At his bedside was his wife, Lois, who had remained loyal during his years as a “falling down” drunk and who later had worked at his side to aid other alcoholics. She is a found er of the Al‐Anon and Alateen groups, which deal with the fears and insecurity suffered by spouses and children of problem drinkers.

Mr. Wilson last spoke pub licly on July 5 of last year in a three‐minute talk he de livered after struggling from a wheelchair to the lectern at the closing session of A.A.’s 35th anniversary international convention in Miami, attended by 11,000 people. He had been admitted three days earlier to the Miami Heart Institute, his emphysema complicated by pneumonia.

Last Oct. 10, he was under hospital care for acute emphy sema and was unable for the first time to attend the A.A. banquet at which his “last‐drink anniversary” has been celebrat ed annually. His greetings were delivered by his wife to the 2,200 A.A. members and guests at the New York Hilton.

Mr. Wilson gave permission to break his A.A. anonymity upon his death in a signed state ment in 1966. The role of Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith as the other founder of the worldwide fellowship was disclosed pub licly when the Akron, Ohio, surgeon died of cancer in 1950 after 15 years of uninterrupted sobriety.

Purpose of Anonymity

In fathering the doctrine that members should not reveal their A.A. affiliation at the pub lic level, Bill W. had explained that “anonymity isn’t just something to save us from alco holic shame and stigma; its deeper purpose is to keep those fool egos of ours from running hog wild after money and fame at A.A.’s expense.”

He cited the example of a nationally known radio per sonality who wrote an auto biography disclosing his A.A. membership and “then spent the royalties crawling the pubs on West 52d Street.”

As Bill W., Mr. Wilson shared what he termed his “experi ence, strength and hope” in hundreds of talks and writings, but in turn—mindful that he himself was “just another guy named Bill who can’t handle booze”—heeded the counsel of fellow alcoholics, and declined a salary for his work in behalf of the fellowship. He supported himself, and later his wife, on royalties from four A.A. books — “Alcoholics Anonymous,” “The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” “Alcoholics Anony mous Comes of Age” and “The A.A. Way of Life.” In the pro gram’s early years, Mrs. Wilson worked in a department store to augment the family income.

Over the years, the gaunt, 6‐foot co‐founder’s wavy brown hair turned wispy white, and his step slowed. In 1962 he re tired from active administration of A.A. affairs and returned to part‐time activity in Wall Street. He continued to speak in New York at dinner meet ings celebrating the anniversar ies of his recovery.

Sense of Inferiority

Mr. Wilson shunned oratory and euphemisms and impressed listeners with the simplicity and frankness of his A.A. “story”:

In his native East Dorset, Vt., where he was born Nov. 26,1895, and where he attended a two‐room elementary school, he recalled, “I was tall and gawky and I felt pretty bad about it because the smaller kids could push me around. I remember being very depressed for a year or more, then I developed a fierce resolve to win—to be a No. 1 man.”

Bill, whose physical strength and coordination were limited, was goaded by a deep sense of inferiority, yet became cap tain of his high school baseball team. He learned to play the violin well enough to lead the school orchestra.

He majored in engineering at Norwich (Vt.) University for three years, then enrolled in Officers Training School when the United States entered World War I. He married Lois Burn ham, a Brooklyn physician’s daughter he had met on vaca tion in Manchester, Vt.

At Army camp in New Bed ford, Mass., Second Lieutenant Wilson of the 66th Coast Artil ?? and fellow officers were entertained by patriotic host esses, and Bill W. was handed his first drink, a Bronx cock tail. Gone, soon, was his sense of inferiority.

Back from active service in France, with a hangover, Mr. Wilson broke into Wall Street as an investigator for a surety company. On a motorcycle, with his wife riding astern, he toured the Northeast, and his confi dential reports on the poten tials of little‐known industrial organizations later produced quick stock profits for his cli ents and himself.

“In those Roaring Twenties,” he remembered, “I was drink ing to dream great dreams of greater power.” His wife be came increasingly concerned, but he assured her that “men of genius conceive their best projects when drunk.”

In the crash of 1929, Mr. Wilson’s funds melted away, but his self‐confidence failed to drop. “When men were leap ing to their deaths from the Towers of High Finance,” he noted, “I was disgusted and re fused to jump. I went back to the bar. I said, and I believed, that ‘I can build this up once more.’ But I didn’t. My alco holic obsession had already condemned me. I became a hanger‐on in Wall Street.”

Numbing doses of bathtub gin, bootleg whiskey and New Jersey applejack became Bill W.’s penance for all his prob lems.

Oxford Group Help

Late in 1934, he was visited by an old barroom companion, Ebby T., who disclosed that he had attained freedom from a drinking compulsion with help from the First Century Chris tian Fellowship (now Moral Re‐Armament), a movement founded in England by the late Dr. Frank N. D. Buchman, and often called the Oxford Group.

Bill W. was deeply impressed and was desperate, but he said that he had not yet reached that level of degradation below which he was unwilling to de scend. He felt he had one more prolonged drunk left in him.

Sick, depressed and clutch ing a bottle of beer, Bill W. staggered a month later into Towns Hospital, an upper Man hattan institution for the treat ment of alcoholism and drug addictions. Dr. William Dun can Silkworth, his friend, put him to bed.

Mr. Wilson recalled then what Ebby T. had told him: “You admit you are licked; you get honest with yourself … you pray to whatever God you think there is, even as an experiment.” Bill W. found himself crying out:

“If there is a God, let Him show Himself. I am ready to do anything, anything!”

“Suddenly,” he related, “the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed …. that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.”

Years later, Bill W. learned from William James’s “Varie ties of Religious Experience” that many persons have spirit ual awakenings but that a ma jority of such transformations are gradual and may occur over a period of months or even years. At the moment, however, he feared he had been hallucinating. He de scribed his experience to Dr. Silkworth.

Fired With Enthusiasm

“No, Bill, you aren’t crazy,” the doctor said. “Something has happened to you that I don’t understand. But you had better hang on to it. Anything is better than the way you were.”

Recovering slowly, and fired with enthusiasm, Mr. Wilson envisioned a chain reaction among drunks, one carrying the message of recovery to the next. Emphasizing at first his spiritual regeneration, and working closely with Oxford Groupers, he struggled for months to “sober up the world,” but got almost no where.

“Look, Bill,” Dr. Silkworth cautioned, “you are preaching at those alkies. You are talk ing about the Oxford precepts of absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Give them the medical business, and give it to ’em hard, about the obsession that condemns them to drink. That—coming from one alcoholic to another—may crack those tough egos deep down.”

Mr. Wilson thereafter con centrated on the basic philos ophy that alcoholism is a physical allergy coupled with a mental obsession—an incur able though arrestable illness of body, mind and spirit. Much later, the disease concept of alcoholism was accepted by a committee of the American Medical Association and by the World Health Organization.

Still dry six months after emerging from the hospital, Mr. Wilson went to Akron to par ticipate in a stock proxy fight. He lost, and was about to lose another bout as he paced out side a bar in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel. Panicky, he groped for inner strength and remembered that he had thus far stayed sober by trying to help other alcoholics.

Through Oxford Group chan nels that night, he gained an introduction to Dr. Robert Hol brook Smith, a surgeon and fel low Vermonter who had vainly sought medical cures and reli gious help for his compulsive drinking.

Bill W. discussed with the doctor his former drinking pat tern and his eventual release from compulsion.

“Bill was the first living human with whom I had ever talked who intelligently dis cussed my problem from actual experience,” Dr. Bob, as he be came known, said later. “He talked my language.”

The new friends agreed to share with each other and with fellow alcoholics their expe rience, strength and hope. The society of Alcoholics Anony mous was born on June 10, 1935—the day on which Dr. Bob downed his last drink and embraced the new program.

Met With Rockefeller

From 1935 until his death, Mr. Wilson’s life and that of A.A. were interwoven. A.A. groups flourished in Akron and in the Wilson apartment at 182 Clinton Street, Brooklyn. Grad ually the movement spread, but the early members—and especially the founders—were very poor. When the program was two years old, Bill W. characteristically became im patient, wanting to promote the movement on a grandiose scale.

“We had visions of comfort able and well ‐ paying jobs, chains of A.A. hospitals and tons of free literature for suf fering alkies,” he said. “Dr. Bob and I met with John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the fall of 1937. We were awfully broke, and hoped now for millions.

“But Mr. Rockefeller had other ideas, and said, ‘I think money will spoil this’ He acted accordingly, and A.A. stayed poor. We had earlier been impressed by the philosophy of St. Francis d’Assisi who, in his own movement, had prac ticed corporate poverty in the belief that the less money and property to quarrel about, the less would be the diversion from their primary purpose. John D. Jr. wisely forced us to live up to that philosophy.”

A year later, Alcoholics Anonymous established in New York a General Service Board of nonalcoholics and recovered alcoholics. They were respon sible for the publication of literature, for public relations and for management of funds contributed by members for worldwide service projects. The society does not accept contributions from outside sources.

Along with the lesson of cor porate poverty, the fellowship decided against affiliation with other organizations, and late in 1937, reluctantly parted com pany with the Oxford move ment.

Tribute to Oxford Group

Nevertheless, Mr. Wilson re peatedly paid tribute to the aid contributed by Oxford Groupers, churches, medicine, psychiatry, health agencies, by the families of A.A. members and by many individuals.

Mr. Wilson called Dr. Smith “the rock on which the A.A. is founded. Under his sponsor ship, assisted briefly by myself, the first A.A. group in the world was born in Akron in June, 1935.”

Mr. Wilson is survived also by two sisters, Mrs. Leonard Strong of Brandon, Vt., and Mrs. Owen Evans of Green Valley, Ariz.

A private funeral service will be held at. the Wilson hom Stepping Stones, in Bedfor Hills. Interment will be in the family plot in East Dorset.

Members of A.A. throughout the world will pay tribute to Mr. Wilson with group memorial services on Feb. 14.