The Forgotten Chapter in Bill W.’s Struggle with Addiction

William Griffith Wilson, or Bill W., is regarded as the father of addiction treatment due to his leadership in establishing Alcoholics Anonymous. While Bill W. pioneered a movement that has helped millions achieve sobriety, in the final years of his life, he explored how alternative treatment methods, such as B3 aka Niacin (a precursor to NAD Therapy and critical cofactor for the transmitter serotonin), could improve the recovery process.

Bill W. and the Founding of AA

From his humble beginning in rural Vermont, Bill achieved success as a trader on Wall Street, but his lifelong struggle with alcohol and the stock market crash of 1929 drained his fortune and caused him to descend into severe alcoholism.

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After years of hopelessness, a former drinking companion, Ebby Thacher, persuaded Bill to pursue a spiritual solution by joining Oxford Group, a mid-20th-century evangelical movement. Despite, Bill’s initial enthusiasm, the temptation of alcohol proved too powerful and he drank the next day. Following this, Bill was readmitted to Towns Hospital for the fourth and final time. While undergoing treatment from Dr. William Silkworth and Dr. Charles Towns, Bill experienced a spiritual conversion that caused him to embrace the path toward sobriety. In order to help other alcoholics, Bill joined the Oxford Group but was only successful in maintaining his own sobriety.

During a business trip to Akron, Ohio in 1935, Bill’s was confronted by severe alcohol cravings and considered acquiescing to a relapse. Instead, Bill sought out the company of a local alcoholic, Dr. Bob Smith, in order to discuss the temptation he was feeling with someone who shared the disorder. Their conversation lasted over six hours, and Wilson moved into Smith’s home to help him with his recovery. On 10 June 1935, Bill cured Smith’s alcoholism, marking what is considered to be the founding date of AA. Four years later, Wilson and Smith published Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism (1939), commonly known as The Big Book, which laid down the Twelve Steps, and soon after AA began to spread across the country. Through their own experiences, Wilson and Smith were able to develop a program for addiction recovery that continues to define treatment to the modern-day.

Bill W.’s Discovery of Niacin Treatment

While AA provided a spiritual solution for many alcoholics, for others AA’s program was not enough to achieve a full recovery. While AA was and continues to be very successful for a considerable number of addicts, its singular solution to the disorder was not a panacea for everyone. Furthermore, the program had little ability to solve the co-occurring disorders that accompany alcoholics long after they achieve sobriety. For Bill W., although he achieved sobriety through establishing AA, he continued to face enduring alcohol-related personal problems, including depression, insomnia, and fatigue.

In 1958, Aldous Huxley, British writer, and AA supporter introduced Bill W. to Dr. Abram Hoffer in New York during a medical conference. Hoffer, a leader in the field of orthomolecular therapy, introduced Bill to the idea that Niacin mega-vitamin treatment, which uses supplements of the vitamin to rectify depleted levels, could eliminate the lasting effects Bill faced. Following this, Bill acted upon Hoffer’s advice and proceeded to take 1000mg of Niacin after each of his three meals a day. Through mega-vitamin therapy, Bill’s long-lasting conditions were rapidly overcome.

Bill W.’s Final Crusade

In the 1960s, Bill’s personal experience with Niacin caused him to become a strong advocate for the treatment. Much to the chagrin of the International Board of AA, Bill sought to pass on information about Niacin treatment to other AA members.

In 1965, Bill conducted a study on 30 sober members of AA, who still suffered from the long-term afflictions of alcoholism, despite their current sobriety. The study showed that by starting a regimen of 1000mg of Niacin after each meal, 10 recovered in the first month and 10 more in the second month. The remaining 10 showed no further improvements in the third month. Overall, Wilson noted, the patients “showed prompt and usually spectacular recovery from sometimes long-standing depression, exhaustion, heavy tension, and even troublesome paranoid behavior.”

Based on these findings, in 1965, Bill wrote a pamphlet, The Vitamin B3 Therapy, on the benefits of Niacin treatment. Bill proposed that AA fund Niacin research and encourage members to pursue Niacin treatments. AA rejected this suggestion and a schism emerged between Bill and the International Board of AA. They argued Bill was not a licensed physician and thus should not extol the virtues of vitamin therapy. Despite this setback, Bill continued to promote the benefits of Niacin.

In 1966, Bill W. and Hoffer attended the convention for International Doctors in Alcoholics Anonymous in Indianapolis. At the conference, Bill and Hoffer gave an address about the benefits of nutritional supplements in large doses, such as Niacin, but the psychiatric establishment present rejected the idea before it could be fully explored. Despite this institutional denial, Niacin began to grow in popularity as sales of the supplement increased from nearly 0 in 1965 to 24,000 in 1967. On this topic, Bill W. writes “This rapidly accelerating interest has been most surprising, considering the institutional apathy and lack of knowledge which has been the rule for many years past.”

In January 1968, Bill authored another publication praising the benefits of Niacin treatment. In this work, Bill concludes, “It is increasingly clear that B3 is becoming a valuable adjunct to the treatment of alcoholism, because such a large majority of problem drinkers are beset with these conditions which, since they can cause depression, anxiety, tension and exhaustion, often make it difficult if not impossible to achieve sobriety.” After this report was published, Bill W. died two years later in 1971.

Prior to his death, Bill was developing a third publication on Niacin, which was not completed in his lifetime. His wife, Lois Wilson, finished his work and published it in 1971. Lois included a letter attached to this report, in which she remarked: “Bill’s great hope was that continued research would find a means whereby those thousands of alcoholics who want to stop drinking but are too ill to grasp the AA program could be released from their bondage and enabled to join AA.” In this report, a number of notable clinicians reported their experiences with Niacin and other vitamins. On such study was completed by Dr. Russell Smith, who evaluated the therapeutic effects of Vitamin B3 when administered to 500 alcoholics over a five-year period. Dr. Smith found that 75% of all patients benefited from Niacin therapy and demonstrated newfound strength toward remaining abstinent. This report, in a similar fashion to its predecessors, was largely ignored by the medical establishment.

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