Slowing death and the Wilsons – What’s the connection?

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Death is inevitable. Some deaths are sudden; some expected. Some can be prevented or slowed. Addictions kill and maim hundreds of thousands each year that we know of, and many more we don’t. Addictions destroy relationships and can lead to death and/or emotional trauma for those close to the addict.

The growing number of deaths attributed to misuse of fentanyl mixed with heroin and other drugs is well documented. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports 107,000 deaths from drug overdose and 140,000 deaths from alcohol in 2021. While rarely named as an addiction problem, the obesity crisis is largely a result of addictions and leads to weakened health and death. 

January 24 is the 105th wedding anniversary of Bill and Lois Wilson. What do they have to do with the rising toll of deaths to addictions? A whole lot. Unfortunately few people know their story and take advantage of the fruits of their marriage – the birth of the Twelve Step movement.

The Wilsons could have been another sad statistic. Bill was well on his way to an alcoholic death in 1935 when he had a life-changing event that resulted in the launch of Alcoholics Anonymous. Truth is if Bill had lived and drank the same way today, his wife Lois would have likely left him and he would have died.

Lois Burnham didn’t do that. She married Bill Wilson because of his creative mind and zest for living and exploring. Like Bill, she was an explorer. Exploring for women in the first half of the 20th century was different than for men. For a set of reasons that mystify some people, Lois stuck with Bill. She nursed him through the end of his drinking days and was a faithful partner as he worked with Dr. Bob Smith and others to co-found Alcoholics Anonymous.

Bill knew firsthand the torture that his drinking had caused Lois. He saw the same torture repeated in the lives of the men who first came to A.A. After watching an impromptu coming together of the spouses of the early members of A.A., Bill encouraged Lois to bring the spouses and family members together. Lois and some friends did that and co-created Al-Anon Family Groups in 1951.

Lois and the members of Al-Anon decided to apply the same Twelve Steps developed for A.A. members to themselves. This brilliant application focused the energy of the spouses on changing their own behavior and not on trying to stop their spouses from drinking.  In addition, by using the same Twelve Steps, they embraced the same spiritual way of life as their spouses.

Bill Wilson lived until 1971. For 36 years after A.A. was founded, the Wilson’s worked together and individually in their respective fellowships to establish a movement that would last. They had seen other hopeful initiatives for people with drinking problems fizzle and die. They learned from this experience and co-created guidelines and practices that have sustained the Twelve Step movement for over 85 years.  

Lois Wilson lived to age 97, dying in 1988, seventeen years after Bill. Lois worked tirelessly to grow and strengthen both Al-Anon and A.A. as Bill’s proxy until she passed. Their marriage benefitted the Twelve Step movement even after Bill passed.

Generously, the pioneers of A.A. freely passed on the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions which are the bedrock of A.A. and Al-Anon to people looking for relief from other addictions, including drugs, gambling, overeating, and work, among others.

The scientific community through its gold standard evaluation process known as The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews reported in 2020 a review of 27 studies of the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous and declared it a leader in the successful treatment of alcohol use disorder.

Despite the enthusiasm of a vast recovering community of people all over the world participating in AA, Al-Anon and dozens of other Twelve Step programs and the acknowledgment of the scientific community, the work of the Wilsons and those who have followed them is too little known and too often discounted or disparaged because there is a belief in a “Higher Power” involved.

We all die. Some deaths are unnecessarily premature. Increased attention to the marriage of Bill and Lois Wilson and the legacy of their marriage is one way to slow down and even contain the generational destruction done to individuals and families by addictions. Happy anniversary, and thank you, Bill and Lois.


  • Tom Adams

    Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.


  1. Mary O'Herron

    As one who has benefited tremendously from Bill and Lois’ efforts, thanks from the bottom of my heart for your service to us by giving us this gift. Much here I didn’t know.
    Blessings and gratitude!!

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Mary, it is a big club and amazing its power for healing. Hoping more peopel expereicne that healing and appreciate the legacy of Bill, Lois and many who came before. Be well, Tom

  2. Don Perkinson

    Thank you Tom. I have several friends who are “friends of Bill W”. I have shared this with them

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks, Don, I appreciate your passing it on!


  3. sally mac

    Thx, Tom. You’re right–imagine the misery and carnage if Bill and Lois had not persevered.
    Those who disparage a Higher Power are welcome to the life that exists according to their “own best thinking.” The 12 steps have led me to an existences that is happy, joyous and free 🙂

    • Tom Adams

      Indeed Sally, whole lot more pain in the world without all the graces and behavior changes brought about by 12 Step spirituality. Peace, Tom