Bill achieved sobriety in December 1934 and maintained it throughout his remaining 35 years. Despite the success and notoriety afforded him by the accomplishments and growth of AA under his leadership, he continued to suffer from compulsive behavior and episodes of depression. In 1955 Bill turned over control of AA to a board of trustees. In the years before his death he changed the makeup of the board, which was initially composed of a non-alcoholic majority, to trustees who were both recovered alcoholics and non-alcoholics, with the majority being recovered alcoholics. In keeping with his interest in spirituality, he experimented with other possible cures for alcoholism. These experiments included niacin (vitamin B3) and parapsychology as a means of inducing spiritual change. Bill died of emphysema complicated by pneumonia in 1971. His wife, Lois Wilson, was the founder of Al-Anon, a group dedicated to helping the friends and relatives of alcoholics. In 1999 Time Magazine declared Bill to be in the top 20 of the Time 100: Heroes and Icons who exemplified "courage, selflessness, exuberance, superhuman ability and amazing grace" in the 20th century.
Bill and Lois were married on January 24, 1918, just before he left to fight in World War I as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Coast Artillery. After an uneventful military service, during which he drank heavily, Bill returned to live with his wife in New York, his dependence on alcohol now fully established. He failed to graduate from law school because he was too drunk to pick up his diploma. Bill became a stock speculator and had success traveling the country with his wife, evaluating companies for potential investors. (During these trips Lois had a hidden agenda: she hoped the travel would keep Bill from drinking.) However, Bill's constant drinking made business impossible and ruined his reputation.
In 1933 he had to be committed to the Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions in New York City four times under the care of Dr. William D. Silkworth. Silkworth's theory was that alcoholism took the form of an allergy (the inability to stop drinking once started) and an obsession (to take the first drink). Bill gained hope from Silkworth's assertion that alcoholism was a medical condition rather than a moral failing, but even that knowledge could not help him. He was eventually told that he would either die from his alcoholism or have to be locked up permanently due to Wernicke encephalopathy (commonly referred to as "wet brain").
Bill was a lifelong political conservative, having opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as The New Deal. Though he benefited from Roosevelt's mortgage moratorium that enabled him to keep a roof over his head, he wrote to Roosevelt denouncing The New Deal. Bill and his wife were living in her father's house at the time and the moratorium prevented mortgage foreclosures; they satisfied the mortgage company with a small monthly fee.
Bill joined the Oxford Group and tried to help other alcoholics, but only succeeded in keeping sober himself. During a failed business trip to Akron, Ohio, Bill was tempted to drink again and decided that to remain sober he needed to help another alcoholic. He called phone numbers on a church directory and eventually secured an introduction to Dr. Bob Smith, an alcoholic Oxford Group member. Bill explained Doctor Silkworth's theory that alcoholics suffer from a physical allergy and a mental obsession. Bill shared that the only way he was able to stay sober was through having a spiritual experience. Dr. Bob was familiar with the tenets of the Oxford Group and upon hearing Bill's experience, "began to pursue the spiritual remedy for his malady with a willingness that he had never before been able to muster. He sobered, never to drink again up to the moment of is death in 1950". Bill and Dr. Bob began working with other alcoholics. After that summer in Akron, Bill returned to New York where he began having success helping alcoholics in what they called, "a nameless squad of drunks" in an Oxford Group there.
In 1938, after about 100 alcoholics in Akron and New York had become sober, the fellowship decided to promote their program of recovery through the publication of a book, for which Bill was chosen as primary author. The book was given the title Alcoholics Anonymous and included the list of suggested activities for spiritual growth known as the Twelve Steps. The movement itself took on the name of the book. Later Bill also wrote the Twelve Traditions, the a set of spiritual guidelines to insure the survival of individual AA groups. The AA general service conference of 1955 was a landmark event for Bill in which he turned over the leadership of the maturing organization to an elected board.
At a parapsychology meeting in the 1960s, Bill met Abram Hoffer and learned about the potential mood-stabilizing effects of niacin. Bill was impressed with experiments indicating that alcoholics who were given niacin had a better sobriety rate, and he began to see niacin "as completing the third leg in the stool, the physical to complement the spiritual and emotional." Bill also believed that niacin had given him relief from depression, and he promoted the vitamin within the AA community and with the National Institute of Mental Health as a treatment for schizophrenia. However, Bill created a major furor in AA because he used the AA office and letterhead in his promotion.
For Bill, spiritualism (communicating with the spirits of the dead) was a life-long interest. One of his letters to his spiritual adviser Father Ed Dowling suggests that while Bill was working on his book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions he felt that spirits were helping him, in particular a 15th century monk named Boniface. Bill believed that the living could communicate with the dead and kept a "Spook Room" in his basement, where he along with others would conduct seances with a Ouija board, as well as experiment with automatic writing. Despite his conviction that he had evidence for the reality of the spirit world, Bill chose not to share this with AA. However his practices still created controversy within the AA membership, with one member writing to C. S. Lewis for advice on the legitimacy of spiritualism. Bill and his wife continued with their unusual practices in spite of the misgivings of many AA members and a letter from Lewis advising against spiritualism.
Bill was a man of many great strengths and just as great weaknesses. He loved being the center of attention, but after the AA principle of anonymity had become established he refused an honorary degree from Yale University and refused to allow his picture, even from the back, on the cover of Time. Bill's persistence, his ability to take and use good ideas, and his entrepreneurial flair are revealed in his pioneering escape from an alcoholic 'death sentence', his central role in the development of a program of spiritual growth, and his leadership in creating and building AA, "an independent, entrepreneurial, maddeningly democratic, non-profit organization.
Bill is perhaps best known as a synthesist of ideas, the man who pulled together various threads of psychology, theology, and democracy into a workable and life-saving system. Aldous Huxley called him "the greatest social architect of our century, and Time magazine named Bill to their Time 100 List of The Most Important People of the 20th Century. Bill's self description was a man who "because of his bitter experience, discovered, slowly and through a conversion experience, a system of behavior and a series of actions that works for alcoholics who want to stop drinking."
Biographer Susan Cheever's wrote in My Name Is Bill, "Bill Wilson never held himself up as a model: he only hoped to help other people by sharing his own experience, strength and hope. He insisted again and again that he was just an ordinary man".