Who is Bill Wilson?

Before founding Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson traded in cheap whiskey during the Prohibition era.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 September 2014
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Until the year 1935, Bill Wilson was one of many failed businessmen who found solace in excessive alcohol consumption. Wilson was said to have been too intoxicated to graduate from law school, eventually settling for a career in the speculative and volatile world of stock trading and speculation. The early days of his marriage to Lois Wilson were filled with infidelities and desperate measures to procure cheap bathtub gin or rotgut whiskey during the Prohibition era.

Although Bill Wilson made several half-hearted attempts to stop drinking, it was not until he entered a controversial rehabilitation program that he became truly sober. Wilson considered this stint in rehab to be a spiritual reawakening, the equivalent of a Damascus road experience for a confirmed alcoholic. Through personal and professional association with other recovering alcoholic businessmen, Bill Wilson co-founded the organization known as Alcoholics Anonymous or AA. Although Wilson himself was from New York, the first real AA meetings were held in Akron, Ohio.

While Bill Wilson was in Akron, Ohio for business, he felt very tempted to take a drink. Convinced that his only hope for sobriety was to talk with a fellow alcoholic, Wilson contacted a local doctor named Dr. Bob Smith. Dr. Bob, as he would later be known by all AA members, listened to Wilson's account of spiritual release from alcohol and found sobriety himself. This concept of a recovering alcoholic seeking guidance and support from a more experienced sponsor is still a very important part of the AA philosophy.


Bill Wilson, along with several other anonymous alcoholics, took it upon himself to write a book which would serve as both a guide for new AA members and a largely autobiographical memoir of his own experiences with alcohol addiction. This book, credited only to "Anonymous," is known in AA circles as the Big Book, and contains many of the traditions and recovery steps prescribed to new members of local AA chapters.

The original tenets of AA included six steps which all recovering addicts must follow in order to maintain their sobriety, but those steps were later expanded to the well-known 12 Step program. Alcoholics must admit they are powerless when it comes to alcohol, and are encouraged to make amends with anyone they may have offended while under the influence. There are also 12 Traditions, which generally provide spiritual and organization rules for individual AA chapters to follow.

Bill Wilson believed that complete anonymity was a vital step in the shared recovery process, so he became known to most AA members as "Bill W." His continued participation in the AA organization became somewhat controversial, due primarily to his adherence to spiritualism and his continued struggles with other addictions, including tobacco and serial infidelity. He eventually stepped down from an active leadership role in AA as the organization became more accepted by the general population.

Bill Wilson and his wife Lois, who founded Al-Anon for relatives of alcoholics, eventually moved to a home known as Stepping Stones. During the late 1960s, Wilson's emphysema worsened and he eventually died from the condition in 1971. Wilson's personal life may have been a contradiction between the sacred and the profane, but his Alcoholics Anonymous organization has continued to help recovering alcohol addicts maintain their own sobriety.


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