Sunday, October 30, 2011

Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks: A Contemporary Perspective

Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks

A Contemporary Perspective

Dick B.

© 2011 Anonymous. All rights reserved

An Introductory Look at Silkworth as One of A.A.’s Co-founders

William Duncan Silkworth, Jr. was born in Brooklyn on July 22, 1873. His family remembers him as a deeply spiritual man, not interested in any particular denomination. But he was, they said, a devout Christian. For many years he did attend Shoemaker’s Calvary Episcopal Church in New York. He matriculated at the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton University and did pre-med studies there. His biographer said Silkworth was told quite early of the need for crisis, reform, and conversion when dealing with alcoholism. In his medical studies, he eventually specialized in neuropsychiatry. And at a time when Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were looking at varied approaches to spiritual healing of the mind, Silkworth was busy with medicine and neuropsychiatry. He graduated from Princeton in 1896. He sought an obtained an internship at Bellevue Hospital Medical College and received his medical degree in 1899. Bellevue was one of the only hospitals in the United States with a department that focused on alcoholism treatment. And Silkworth spent many years connected with many hospitals focused on treating alcoholics. He studied under and was tutored by a prestigious physician and professor named Dr. Alexander Lambert—a doctor who had been especially interested in narcotic addiction and treatment. Finally, in the spring of 1929, Silkworth was hired as physician in charge of alcohol rehabilitation at Towns Hospital. And it was at Towns, that Silkworth became much involved with his patient, William Griffith Wilson.

Silkworth, a Spiritual Experience and Medical Treatment—His Foundation for Long-term Recovery: It Depended, He Said, on the Great Physician Jesus Christ

Throughout his medical career in dealing with alcoholic patients until his death in 1951, Silkworth—according to his biographer—had believed a spiritual experience and medical treatment formed the foundation for long-term recovery. He spoke frequently about the need for reliance upon God and a firm foundation of spiritual strength in order to handle the obsession to drink. In the beginning, the recovery success rate was less than 2 percent.

He became a man who believed in a spiritually sound approach to healing. By 1934, Bill Wilson had attempted recovery at Towns Hospital on three separate occasions. Each time, he wound up drunk, and his wife had all but given up hope of his getting sober.

But it is now known that on the third visit, Bill and Dr. Silkworth discussed the “Great Physician.” And Bill understood that to mean that the Great Physician could cure the alcohol sickness. Bill mentioned this option several times. Silkworth finally told Bill how he had read about the successes of other spiritual transformations. He told Bill though, though he was a man of science, he was well aware of the success a spiritual conversion could have. Silkworth used the term “The Great Physician” to explain the need in recovery for a relationship with Jesus Christ. And early on, Bill Wilson insisted on references to God and Jesus, as well as the Great Physician. Silkworth had told Bill and at least one other patient that the Great Physician could complete the healing. He said, “His name is Jesus Christ.”

The Early A.A. Big Book Solution: A Vital Spiritual Experience--A Conversion

I have several times told how Bill acted on Silkworth’s advice. First Bill learned that his old friend Ebby Thacher had made a decision of Jesus Christ at Shoemaker’s Calvary Rescue Mission. Bill decided that the Great Physician might be able to help him as He had helped Ebby. Bill went to Calvary Mission, made a decision for Jesus Christ, wrote that for sure he had been “born again.” He then staggered drunk to Towns Hospital, decided to call on the Great Physician for help. He cried out to God for help. He sensed the presence of God in his hospital room. He described a blazing white light that had taken over the room. He concluded, “So this is the God of the Scriptures.” And he never drank again. In fact, in A.A.’s own literature, Bill wrote: “Henrietta, the Lord has been so wonderful to me curing me of this terrible disease that I just want to keep talking about it and telling people.”

In short, Bill had—through Silkworth and through his own experience—found the solution to alcoholism, which was the original solution set forth in his 1939 Big Book. A spiritual experience.

And years later, Bill wrote the famous Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung to tell him about the solution, to thank him, and to confirm that the spiritual experience had worked.

As he had done with Rev. Sam Shoemaker, Bill Wilson called Dr. Silkworth a “founder” of A.A. Wilson confirmed many times that Silkworth was “very much a founder of A.A.” He also said, “Perhaps no physician will ever give so much devoted attention to so many alcoholics as did Dr. Silkworth. It is estimated that in his lifetime he saw and amazing 40,000 of them.

The Silkworth Formula—The Essential Features of the New Approach

Silkworth’s biographer quotes Silkworth’s article titled “A New Approach to Psychotherapy to Chronic Alcoholism.” In brief, Silkworth said:

  1. The ex-alcoholics capitalize upon a fact which they have so well demonstrated, namely: that one alcoholic can secure the confidence of another in a way and to a degree impossible of attainment by a non-alcoholic outsider.

  1. After having fully identified themselves with their “prospect” by a recital of symptoms, behavior, anecdotes, etc., these men allow the patient to draw the inference that if he is seriously alcoholic, there may be no hope for him save a spiritual experience.

  1. Once the patient agrees that he is powerless, he finds himself in a serious dilemma. He sees clearly that he must have a spiritual experience or be destroyed by alcohol.

  1. The dilemma brings about a crisis in the patient’s life. He finds himself in a situation which, he believes, cannot be untangled by human means. He has been placed in this position by another alcoholic who has recovered through a spiritual experience. Under these conditions, the patient returns to religion with an entire willingness and readily accepts a simple religious proposal. He is then able to acquire much more than a set of religious beliefs; he undergoes the profound mental and emotional change common to religious experience.

  1. The fellowship is entirely different concerning the individual manner of spiritual approach so long as the patient is willing to turn his life and his problems over to the care and direction of his Creator.

  1. The suggestion is made that he do certain things which are obviously good psychology, good morals and good religion, regardless of creed: (a) That he make a moral appraisal of himself, and confidentially discuss his findings with a competent person whom he trusts. (b) That he try to adjust bad personal relationships, setting right, so far as possible, such wrongs as he may have done in the past; (c) That he recommit himself daily, or hourly if need be, to God’s care and direction, asking for strength; (d) That, if possible, he attend weekly meetings of the fellowship and actively lend a hand with alcoholic newcomers.

Important Tributes

Reader’s Digest writes of Silkworth a few months after his death:

Dr. Silkworth was a great man who failed with all human science and was humble enough to use God for a medicine.

Dr. Bob said:

The Silkworth theory was what triggered him into a new way of life. Dr. Silkworth’s conversion ideas, as confirmed by William James, had struck him at great depth.

Bill Wilson wrote:

We drunks can thank Almighty God that such a man was designated by the divine Providence to inspire and guide us, individually and as a group, on the long way back to sanity.

Silkworth himself wrote:

Since I have been working with A.A. the comparative percentage of successful results has increased to an amazing extent.

The percentage of success that A.A. has scored leaves no doubt that it has something more than we as doctors can offer. It is, I am convinced, your second step. Once the A.A. alcoholic has grasped that, he will have no more slips.     


The materials here are based largely upon quotes from and opinions expressed in the following writings:

Dale Mitchel, Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2002).

Bill W., My First 40 Years (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000)

Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006)

Alcoholics Anonymous, 1st ed. (NY: Works Publishing Company, 1939)

Alcoholics Anonymous, 4tb ed. (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2002)

The Language of the Heart: Bill W.’s Grapevine Writings (NY: The AA Grapevine, Inc., 1988)

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