Bill W’s Last Drink

Few articles in the Post had the impact of “Alcoholics Anonymous," which prompted 6,000 letters to the Post editors and sparked national interest in the program.

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On December 11, 1934, William Griffith Wilson took his last drink of alcohol. He didn’t know it at the moment, nor did he know he was about to start a new chapter in his life, and the lives of thousands of Americans.

In the aftermath of his last bout of drinking, Wilson once again entered a detoxification program. He was hoping this time he could end the 13-year struggle with alcohol that had destroyed his career and his health.

He soon realized that simply “drying out” in a sanitarium wouldn’t help. But it was during this hospitalization that he got the inspiration for a better program. Between 1935 and ’36, he worked with a physician (and fellow alcoholic) to create a new approach to ending their addiction to drink. Together they created a program called Alcoholics Anonymous, which Wilson described in a book that he wrote under the pseudonym of “Bill W.”

Six years passed. Two thousand Americans had joined the program and many had recovered sobriety and sanity in their lives. But the program was still relatively unknown, and had never promoted itself to the public. Then, in March, the Post published “Alcoholics Anonymous” by Jack Alexander and introduced this unusual program to the rest of America.

A.A. was unusual for several reasons, as Alexander pointed out. First, it threw out the traditional thinking about alcoholism, which regarded it as a moral failing, a mental weakness, or a personal choice. Rather it defined the condition as a disease, which could never be cured but could be successfully managed. The program’s members told Alexander—

There is…no such thing as an ex-alcoholic. If one is an alcoholic—that is, a person who is unable to drink normally—one remains an alcoholic until he dies, just as a diabetic remains a diabetic. The best he can hope for is to become an arrested case.

Another unusual aspect was the program’s emphasis on personal responsibility and spirituality. A.A. required the alcoholic to be fully committed and willing to seek guidance and strength from some “higher power.”

The program will not work…with those who only “want to want to quit,” or who want to quit because they are afraid of losing their families or their jobs. The effective desire, they state, must be based upon enlightened self-interest; the applicant must want to get away from liquor to head off incarceration or premature death. He must be fed up with the stark social loneliness which engulfs the uncontrolled drinker and he must want to put some order into his bungled life.

If he applies to Alcoholics Anonymous, he is first brought around to admit that alcohol has him whipped and that his life has become unmanageable. Having achieved this state of intellectual humility, he is given a dose of religion in its broadest sense. He is asked to believe in a Power that is greater than himself, or at least to keep an open mind on that subject while he goes on with the rest of the program.

Another unique feature was the absence of ministers, doctors, or other professionals. The program was run by alcoholics, who knew all the dodges, excuses, and denials that applicants would bring to the program.

There is no specious excuse for drinking which the trouble shooters of Alcoholics Anonymous have not heard or used themselves. When one of their prospects hands them a rationalization for getting soused, they match it with half a dozen out of their own experiences.

But of all the remarkable aspects of the program, the most important was its success. Over the years, thousands of Americans were able to reclaim their lives, their families, and their careers through the program.

In 1950, when Alexander wrote a follow-up article, the program had grown to 3,000 groups with 90,000 members.

Ninety thousand persons, roaring drunk or roaring sober, are but a drop in the human puddle, and they represent only a generous dip out of the human alcoholic puddle. [Yet] to anyone who has ever been a drunk or who has had to endure the alcoholic cruelties of a drunk —and that would embrace a large portion of the human family — 90,000 alcoholics reconverted into working citizens represent a massive dose of pure gain. In human terms, the achievements of Alcoholics Anonymous stand out as one of the few encouraging developments of a rather grim and destructive half century.

(The top photo, from the Alexander’s 1941 article, illustrated how some member of A.A. managed to continue drinking when their hands were shaking violently: “[They tied] an end of a towel about a glass, looping the towel around the back of the neck and drawing the free end with the other hand, pulley fashion, to advance the glass to the mouth.”)

Here are the pages of the Post article as they appeared in 1941:

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  1. Hi I am Yashwant L an alcoholic Prabhat Group Chandrapur.
    Firstly thanks to Bill W. Sir and Dr.Bob sir to establish this fellowship to me.
    I take my last drink on 25 Saptember 2017 and is sober from next day i. e. 26 Saptember 2017.
    I am glad with this felloship now who has show me to live the way of life.

  2. I had the White light experience on the morning of November the 28th, 1997. I just celebrated 23 years. Thank you Bill and all of our forefathers. I am eternally grateful for the gift of AA.

    Scott M.

  3. Once again I have succumbed to the mental obsessions which led me to picking up the 1st drink, which led to many more after the phenomenon of craving set in.
    My new (and with God’s grace) my permanent sobriety date is 02-22-2020. I know in my heart that the program of AA works. I must become willing to work it, every day … ONE day at a time.

  4. Dec 12 1985 .my last drink..thank you bill w. & god..really good to read this..god bless all..stephen s.

  5. By the grace of God and the program of Alcoholics Anonymous I haven’t had to have a drink today. I am a greatful alcoholic.

  6. My understanding of AA history is that Ebby brought the basic program to Bill. After detoxing and having a “white light” experience Bill then sought to bring the program to others. He would often go back to the hospital to talk with the drinks as finding “prospects” was not an easy task. It was on a business trip to Akron that he met Dr Bob. The day after Mother’s Day. It happened the day after because the day of when Henrietta Sebring talked to Dr Bob’s wife Ann, Bob was passed out. He agreed to go see Bill the next day where he was only going to give Bill 15 minutes. They talked until 2 or 3 in the morning. On June 10th 1935 Dr Bob had his last two beers and then went about making his amends. That is the day that Alcoholics Anonymous was born. Many take their first day sober as their Sobriety date. But based on Dr Bob, it’s actually the day you take your last drink. Also known as “Sober on the Book”. I am so, so grateful for the wisdom and inspiration Bill and Dr Bob’s Higher Powers bestowed upon them. For without Divine inspiration this program never would have happened and I would not be 9 years sober with a completely different attitude and outlook on life. I am beyond humbled.

  7. I’ve been sober for 37 years in recovery I got to know Lois Wilson by my understanding it was actually ebby Thatcher who brought the message of recovery to bill before he met dr. Bob through the Oxford program

  8. Thanks for the correction. We’ve updated the date in the article.

    Cassandra Orton | Web Editor
    The Saturday Evening Post

  9. Seems reckless to allow such a glaring error to stand as the year of Bill Wilson’s last drink. If it had been December of 1935 instead of 1934, as he stated, he would have been the 2nd sober member, and that date would mark the founding of the fellowship, instead of 10 June of that same year, which was the date of Dr. Bob Smith’s last drink. With all due respect how is this allowed to stand uncorrected?

  10. I decided after the last time I drank that I was not going to the hospital this time and if I died it would be too bad but,if I lived I would never forget Thankyou God for working through Bill Bob I thank you for my life.

  11. Actually Dr. Bob’s last drink was said to be 10th of June 1935. Bill met Dr. Bob on May 12th of that year (mother’s day). It’s interesting that Jack Alexander said there is no such thing as an “ex-alcoholic” in 1941. The book “Alcoholics Anonymous” continued to use the term “ex-alcoholic” until June 1947 when the 11th edition of the book came out.

  12. I am also grateful to A.A. because it brought about Alanon for the friends and family of alcoholics. It is thought that one alcoholic will effect atleast ten people but for some reason Alanon continues to have numbers less than A.A. However, Alanon gave me a great life even though my addict did not choose the same. We will forever be grateful. A day does not go by that I remember how I used to act vs. how I act and think today. Today my life is good and I can laugh and have great peace.

  13. Bill met Dr Bob June 10, 1935 which was the birthday of AA. Bill was 6 months sober at the time therefore Bills anniversary date should be Dec 11, 1934 not 1935 as the article states.

  14. What a great article. You don’t hear folks speaking like that in meetings nowadays. I am truly grateful to the men and women who were there for me (And countless others) my early days of sobriety. They laid it on the line and walked with me (and continue to walk with me). Thank AA for god as my old sponsor used to say! Without AA I would have never had an open mind to accepting a spiritual way of life.


  16. Thank God for Bill & Bob, I know that this “drunk” would not be alive if it were not for A.A. and my friends in the program to help and guid me through life
    Iain F

  17. Bill and Bob, they started it all,
    And step by step they scaled the slope,
    Dropping the chains of alcohol,
    And picking up the tools of hope.
    Along the way, the word was spread.
    Others came to join the journey.
    No longer given up for dead,
    We learned to live life soberly.
    So full of promise for the good,
    That we should share with those who came
    For help. And doing so we could,
    Like Bill and Bob, enjoy the same.

    These steps have saved a lot of us –
    Alcoholics Anonymous.

  18. Excellent article. I have been blessed with almost 38 years of continuous sobriety. April 8th 1974 was the day I took my last drink. But for the Grace of God go I. I am one of a very select group of individuals. Many who have the disease are not able to get sober and stay sober. I have lost many friends through the years whose lives were taken by either alcohol or drugs. Alcoholics Anonymous saved my life and gave me a way of living second to none. No matter where I am or go in this life there has never been a day in my sobriety that I have not thanked God for helping me not take a drink of alcohol that day. At my first meeting I was asked two questions by a man who had 15 years of sobriety. Have you had enough trouble with Alcohol and are you willing to go to any lengths to stay sober. I answered yes to both questions. The most important thing in my life is my sobriety for without it I would have been dead many years ago. God Bless Bill W. and Doctor Bob whose chance meeting in Ohio in 1935 saved millions of people from absolute doom. In order to keep your sobriety you must give it away and help others achieve sobriety.

    Bill A


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