5 Things You Didn't Know About Bill W.


TIME called William Wilson one of the top heroes and icons of the 20th century, but hardly anyone knows him by that name. Instead, he's remembered as Bill W., the humble, private man who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous during the 1930s. Let's take a look at a few things you might not know about the man who valued his anonymity so highly.

1. He Had a Good Partner

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Bill W.'s partner in founding A.A. was a pretty sharp guy. Robert Holbrook Smith was a Dartmouh-educated surgeon who is now remembered by millions of recovering alcoholics as "Dr. Bob." Like Bill W., Dr. Bob had long struggled with his own drinking until the pair met in Akron in 1935. Bill W. took his last drink on December 11, 1934, and by June 10, 1935—what's considered to be the founding date of A.A.—Dr. Bob was through with the sauce, too.

The two men immediately began working together to help reach Akron's alcoholics, and with the help of Dr. Bob's wife, Anne, helped perfect the 12 steps that would become so important to the A.A. process. Eventually Bill W. returned to Brooklyn Heights and began spreading their new system to alcoholic New Yorkers.

2. The Rockefellers Gave Him a (Very) Little Bit of Help

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Getting a big nationwide organization off the ground is no easy task, so after A.A. had been up and running for three years, the group wrote a letter to one of the nation's most famous teetotalers, J.D. Rockefeller.

They didn't ask for any cash; instead, they simply wanted the savvy businessman's advice on growing and funding their organization.

Rockefeller, though, was quite taken with the A.A. and pledged enough financial support to help publish a book in which members described how they'd stayed on the wagon. Rockefeller also gave Bill W. a grant to keep the organization afloat, but the tycoon was worried that endowing A.A. with boatloads of cash might spoil the fledgling society. Instead, he gave Bill W. and Dr. Bob $30 apiece each week to keep A.A. up and running.

3. He Was (Almost) a Lawyer

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When Bill W. was a young man, he planned on becoming a lawyer, but his drinking soon got in the way of that dream. He attended Brooklyn Law School, but in his very last semester he showed up for his finals so soused that he couldn't even read the questions.

Bill W. managed to reschedule the exams for the fall semester, and on the second try he passed the tests. He then asked for his diploma, but the school said he would have to attend a commencement ceremony if he wanted his sheepskin. Bill refused. As he later wrote in his memoir Bill W: My First 40 Years, "I never appeared, and my diploma as a graduate lawyer still rests in the Brooklyn Law School. I never went back for it. I must do that before I die."

Bill W. did almost get a law degree after all, though. In 1954 Yale offered to give him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and the school even agreed to make out the diploma to "W.W." to maintain his anonymity. Bill W. passed on the degree, though, after consulting with A.A.'s board of directors and deciding that humbly declining the award would be the best path. He requested that Yale offer the degree to A.A. as a whole, but the school declined to honor that wish.

4. He Became a Wall Street Hotshot

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After leaving law school without an actual diploma, Bill W. went to work on Wall Street as a sort of speculative consultant to brokerage houses. Although he was often dead drunk during work hours, he had quite a bit of success sizing up companies for potential investors. He and his wife Lois even traveled around the country throughout the 1920s looking for prime investment opportunities in small companies. Eventually, though, the stock market collapsed in 1929, and once the money stopped rolling in bankers had little incentive to tolerate the antics of their drunken speculator.

5. He Tried to Get Sober or Stay Sober in Other Ways

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Before and after Bill W. hooked up with Dr. Bob and perfected the A.A. system, he tried a number of less successful methods to curb his drinking. In the 1950s he experimented with LSD—which was then an experimental therapeutic rather than recreational drug—but wasn't a huge fan of the chemical. Bill later said that he thought LSD could "be of some value to some people and practically no damage to anyone."

Bill W. had also attempted "the belladonna cure," which involved taking hallucinogenic belladonna along with a generous dose of castor oil. This system might have helped ease the symptoms of withdrawal, but it played all sorts of havoc on the patient's guts. That's how it got the affectionate nickname "purge and puke."

If there's someone you'd like to see profiled in a future edition of '5 Things You Didn't Know About...,' leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.

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