Bill Wilson, AA’s Founder, born in Vermont and was a Norwich cadet

Wife Lois founded Al-Anon

Pinterest photo of Bill Wilson, born in a Vermont saloon and co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous

by Peter Fernandez

Emily and Gil Wilson hadn’t a notion, of course, that their son born behind the saloon bar of their Vermont tavern during an 1895 snowstorm would co-found the 20th-century therapeutic phenomenon, Alcoholics Anonymous. The son, Bill Wilson, would also write one of the best-selling books of all time, The Big Book of AA. From 1936, this Twelve Step Program would offer countless souls a way out of addiction to alcohol.

Time Magazine in 1999 categorized him as “Bill W: The Healer” in the Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century. In 2012 the Library of Congress named “The Big Book” one of the 88 books that shaped America. But before any of this could happen, Bill W. would have to be salvaged from his own acute alcoholism.

An engineering student at Norwich University from 1913-16, Wilson studied through random panic attacks and depression. Married only days before his Vermont National Guard unit was called up to fight the Hun, he established himself a fine artillery officer, Over There.

After surviving the charnel fields of France, America’s Prohibition (of Alcohol) Era, 1920-1933, couldn’t stop the veteran from obtaining booze. These wicked spirits crashed and beat down upon the analytical 24-year-old, wounding his ambitious psyche. Despite the reckless drinking, his marriage survived the failed Brooklyn Law School experiment of the early twenties.

After giving up their flat and jobs in April 1925, Bill & Lois went on a quixotic journey, a sometimes lucrative stock speculation tour upon a Harley-Davidson and sidecar. As a Wall Street finance analyst and aide-de-camp, Bill and Lois some- times slept in a tent and labored as farm hands to keep from utilizing their meager savings. But his degenerate drinking continued, as well as the well-meaning attempts to sober up, but despite Wilson’s emotional pain, shame, and physical withdrawal, like a dog returning to its own vomit, he staggered on, dragging along Lois.

The motorcycle hoboes earned some money, but through the tipsy twenties and into the thirsty thirties, Bill W. continued to swerve and crash into what had become hopeless alcoholism. Now jobless, revolving in and out of hospitals and sanitariums, supported by his wife and in-laws, the forty-one-year-old would finally reach a physical and psychic “bottom.” Mind, spirit, and soul poisoned, his Stygian dungeon would become the sobering bedrock and mournful muse of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In a hospital bed in 1936 and suffering from delirium tremons, or DTs, Bill W. would experience his lowest and most unacceptable state of consciousness, but it was to be followed by divine ecstasy. “Drinking buddy” Erin Thatcher, sober for three months, was by his side hoping to convince Bill to turn his will and his life over to a God of his understanding. According to the AA publication, Pass It On, “Wilson, while lying in bed depressed and despairing, he cried out, ‘I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!’[22] He then had the sensation of a bright light, a feeling of ecstasy, and a new serenity. He never drank again for the remainder of his life.”

Five months later, a still sober Bill Wilson went to Akron, Ohio on business. Afraid of relapse, he made telephone inquiries. There, of course, was no AA office to call and find an AA meeting, so he called a number of churches hoping to be connected with another drunk. He found one in a local surgeon, Dr. Robert Smith, who, as cool as it sounds, was another Woodchuck, born and raised in St. Johnsbury, and educated at Dartmouth.

The surgeon had for decades also suffered under the lash of liquor, checking himself into over a dozen hospitals and detoxification units. Being an MD, he could routinely obtain barbiturates to sedate the day-after delirium tremens, and continue to repeat the sardonic Sisyphean cycle over and over. Speaking and sharing his “experience, strength, and hope” with another alcoholic had so far helped keep Bill W. sober. he remained sober for the rest of his life, dying in 1970 of emphysema. Dr. Bob, his AA co-founder, would remain sober until his death from colon cancer in 1950, at 71.

It just seemed to work “One day at a time,” this proposition to save oneself with another experienced soul. Soon after Bill W. and Dr. Bob’s beatific meeting, AA was founded on June 10, 1935.

So, why did Bill’s wife, Lois, never leave him? It was a different era for the conjugal bond, but if she had, perhaps Lois would never have founded Al-Anon in 1951, the first support group for alcoholic family members. Without Lois, Bill probably would have died a degenerate and early death, and AA may never have been realized.

It was AA’s Twelve Step Program of Recovery that various other self-help programs such as Narcotics Anonymous, Over Eaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Sex Addicts Anonymous are based on.

Since 2020 there are estimated to be 115,000 AA groups worldwide with 75% of those in the U.S. and Canada. According to an article written and published by Addiction Group and updated this April, “Almost a tenth of American adults (22.3 million) have overcome addiction and live in solid sobriety.” Alcoholics Anonymous is one of many programs available to those seeking help. Sobriety, Relapse, and Addiction Recovery Statistics in 2023 (addictiongroup.org)

NEXT- Part II, AA & The Psychedelic Experience

The author is a children’s book author and Vermont resident.

Categories: History

3 replies »

  1. Wow! Who knew?

    This is an interesting story of AA’s origins. I’m wondering where, in Vermont, Bill was born. (Where was the tavern that his parents owned?)

    Thank you for sharing this piece of VT history! So many families have benefited from AA’s programs.

  2. Random Trivia: My great-uncle was an Oxford Group member with Ebby Thatcher and Bill Wilson. He and Bill had both been in France for WW1, worked together in finance in NY, and struggled similarly. My great-grandpa was the judge in Bennington who helped their friend Ebby stay out of prison and instead rehabilitate using an early version of AA methodology. I’m prous that this Christian based program has much of its roots in Vermont!