William Griffith Wilson was one of the most influential people of the 20th Century. Known to millions as “Bill W.,” Wilson attended Norwich from 1914 to 1917 and was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Since its inception in 1935, Wilson’s 12-step program to recovery has helped countless people achieve sobriety and overcome addiction. Now celebrating its 80th year, Alcoholics Anonymous has more than 2 million active members and 100,000 chapters around the world. Time Magazine listed Wilson in the top one hundred people of the last millennium and Aldous Huxley called him the “greatest social architect of the century.”
William Griffith Wilson was born in Dorset, Vt., in 1895. His father’s alcoholism led to his parent’s divorce and subsequent abandonment of Bill and his sister at an early age. They were raised by their maternal grandparents. Bill attended Burr and Burton, a prep school in Manchester, Vt., becoming captain of the baseball team and president of his class. He entered Norwich in as a freshman in 1913, however depression and panic attacks forced him to leave his second semester. He returned to Norwich on and off through 1916.
Like many of his classmates, Wilson enlisted to serve in World War I and never finished his degree. It was in the army that he learned to drink excessively. In the 1930s, Wilson was a failed stockbroker. He set his sights on a law degree and struggled through law school. It has been reported that he passed all of his classes but was too drunk to attend commencement and accept his degree. At the end of his rope after several attempts to detox, Wilson admitted himself to Town Hospital in New York. He was visited by Ebby Thatcher, a close friend who had found sobriety through a Christian evangelical organization called the Oxford Group. Wilson accompanied Thatcher to meetings of the Oxford Group and he adopted the belief that human suffering is caused by sin, absolution comes from prayer, and confession is a pre-requisite to change. AA was founded on the concepts of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, and restitution for harm done.
In 1935 Wilson befriended Dr. Robert Smith, a proctologist and another hopeless drunk. They formed a pact to stop drinking, and a partnership began. When Smith became sober, he returned to active medical practice and his name added credibility to the fledgling Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson introduced the concept of support groups, advocated spirituality meetings and prayer, though he was actually an agnostic. As the program took hold, Wilson introduced the “12 step program” and The Big Book that taught participants to accept powerlessness and turn their lives over to God or some higher power.
Dr. Smith died in 1951 following 15 years of sobriety. Wilson remained sober for 37 years until his death of pneumonia in 1971 en route to an AA convention in Miami, Fla. Upon his passing, a memorial was held for Wilson in White Chapel. Norwich awarded him a posthumous degree in 1995.
The collections of the Norwich University Archives and Special Collections include biographical information on Bill Wilson. A scrapbook compiled by Wilson’s close friend, Gus Nelson, Class of 1924, features photographs of him as a student.
Submitted by Duane Martin ‘67