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Great thinkers: William Griffith Wilson (1895-1971).

BACKGROUND: Bill Wilson was born on 26 November 1895 in East Dorset, Vermont, to Gilman Barrows Wilson and Emily Griffith. Wilson began drinking in the military during World War 1. In 1918, he married Lois Burnham and, upon his release from the services, he became a stock speculator in New York. His dependancy on drink increased and he was confined to a psychiatric hospital on a number of occasions over a period of several years.

Locked up for the fourth time at Manhattan's Towns Hospital in 1934, Wilson had a spiritual awakening that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and the successful remedy for alcoholism--the 12-step programme. The 12 steps have subsequently generated successful programmes for eating disorders, gambling, narcotics and other addictions; novelist Aldous Huxley called him "the greatest social architect of our century".

INFLUENCES: Inspired by a friend who had stopped drinking, Wilson went to meetings of the Oxford Group, an evangelical society founded in Britain by the American Frank Buchman. In 1935 he underwent a barbiturate-and-belladonna cure that was state-of-the-art treatment for alcoholism at the time. Five months later, he went to Akron, Ohio, on business but the deal was unsuccessful and he wanted a drink. He suddenly became convinced that, by helping another alcoholic, he could save himself.

Through a series of desperate telephone calls, he found Dr Robert Smith, a sceptical drunk; their meeting lasted for hours and, a month later, Dr Bob had his last drink. On that day--10 June 1935--Alcoholics Anonymous was founded. "Because Anonymous our kinship in suffering," Wilson wrote, "our channels of contact have always been charged with the language of the heart."

The Wilson house 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. 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.

But the book, although well reviewed, wasn't selling. In 1939, the bank foreclosed on Wilson's home and he and his wife began years of homelessness, living as guests in borrowed rooms. In 1940, John D. Rockefeller Jr held an AA 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.

The turning point for Wilson and AA came in March 1941 when the Saturday Evening Post published an article on their work, and suddenly thousands of letters and requests poured in. Attendance at meetings doubled and tripled. Wilson had finally reached his audience.

LEGACY: Today there are more than two million Art members in 150 countries, and they still follow 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. In his Twelve Traditions, Wilson set down the suggested bylaws of Alcoholics Anonymous and thereby created a blueprint for an organisation that wanted a maximum of individual freedom, and no link to power or money. Public anonymity ensured humility; no contributions were required, and no member could contribute more than $1,000.

As Alcoholics Anonymous grew, Wilson became its principal symbol. He helped create a governing structure for the programme, the General Service Board, and turned over his power. "I have become a pupil of the AA movement rather than the teacher," he wrote. He adhered to his belief in the principles and the power of anonymity and was always Bill W. He refused to be paid for counselling and leadership and turned down many honours in his lifetime.

A life-long smoker, he died of emphysema and pneumonia on 24 January 1971 in Miami, Florida.

Debbie Carter is editor of TJ. If you would like to nominate a 'Great Thinker', please send your nomination to her at
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Title Annotation:IDEAS
Author:Carter, Debbie
Publication:Training Journal
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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