The Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous

In October 1909, Dr. Alexander Lambert announced to a New York Times reporter that he had found a cure for alcoholism and drug addiction—a cure that would work in less than five days—consisting of belladonna (deadly nightshade) and the fluid extracts of xanthoxylum (prickly ash) and hyoscyamus (henbane). Howard Markel, M.D., writes for the New York Times today that Dr. Lambert was hardly a quack seeking a headline: he was widely known as Theodore Roosevelt’s personal physician, a professor of medicine at Cornell Medical College, and an expert on alcoholism.

Dr. Markel writes that Dr. Lambert had years of experience taking care of thousands of alcoholics at Bellevue Hospital’s infamous “drunk ward,” which is where he experimented with the belladonna cure. He obtained the recipe from a layman named Charles B. Towns, who claimed to have learned about it from a country doctor.

In 1901, Towns opened a substance abuse hospital in New York City; he needed Dr. Lambert because he lacked a medical degree, and Dr. Lambert needed Mr. Towns because he had relatively little to offer his patients in terms of an effective treatment.

The Towns Hospital attracted the wealthiest alcoholics and addicts, who paid exorbitant fees for a treatment that “successfully and completely removes the poison from the system and obliterates all craving for drugs and alcohol.”

Perhaps the most famous patient of the Towns Hospital was William Griffith Wilson, better known as Bill W., or the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the early 1930s, Wilson was consuming more than two quarts of rotgut whiskey daily, a definite health risk according to Dr. Lambert, who found that consumers of cheap or bootlegged alcohol were far more prone to seizures, delirium tremens, and brain damage than those who drank expensive liquor.

Dr. Markel writes that between 1933 and 1934, at his wife’s urging and on his wealthy brother-in-law’s dime, Wilson was admitted to Towns four times. The cost upon admission was up to $350 (about $5,610 today) for a four- to five-day stay. Although Wilson made some progress in temporarily abstaining, he relapsed after each of the first three hospitalizations. It was around this time that he reunited with a drinking buddy named Ebby Thacher, who told Wilson that he had quit drinking and was now a member of the Oxford Group, a church-based association devoted to living on a higher spiritual plane guided by Christianity.

On Dec. 7, 1934, Thacher took Wilson to the Calvary Mission on East 23rd Street and Second Avenue, where the most drunken of New York’s Depression-era down-and-outers went to be fed and, hopefully, “saved.”

A few days later, Wilson drunkenly returned to the Towns Hospital, where Dr. William D. Silkworth sedated him with chloral hydrate and paraldehyde, two agents guaranteed to help an agitated drunk to sleep. This was especially important because the medical staff members had to wake patients every hour for at least two days to take the various pills, cathartics, and tinctures of the belladonna regime.

Dr. Markel writes that on the second or third day of his treatment, Wilson had a spiritual awakening. Earlier that evening, Thacher had visited and tried to persuade Wilson to turn himself over to the care of a Christian deity who would liberate him from the ravages of alcohol. Hours later, Wilson cried out: “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let him show himself!” He then reportedly witnessed a blinding light and felt an ecstatic sense of freedom and peace. When Wilson told Dr. Silkworth about the event, the physician responded: “Something has happened to you I don’t understand. But you had better hang on to it.”

This experience ultimately led Wilson to abstain from alcohol for the remaining 36 years of his life and to co-create the novel program whereby one alcoholic helps another through a commitment to absolute honesty and a belief that a higher power can help one achieve sobriety, what we now know as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Long before Towns touted his cure for alcoholism, belladonna (as well as henbane) was known to cause hallucinations. The hallucinations brought on by alcoholic delirium tremens tend to be a transmogrification of things the alcoholic is actually seeing or experiencing into a realm of sheer terror. Other hallucinations associated with alcohol withdrawal, or alcoholic hallucinosis, tend to be brief and involve hearing accusatory or threatening voices. Belladonna hallucinations, however, are typically based on recent discussions the person had but become far more fantastic. Many times, these visions appear to fulfill the wishes one might have had during the inspiring experience.

Several decades after his 1909 announcement, Dr. Lambert took great pains to distance himself from belladonna. Although he found the detoxification process to be useful in the short run, Dr. Lambert became discouraged by its toxicity, its propensity to induce hallucinations, and the fact that many of those he treated at Bellevue relapsed and returned for subsequent treatment. Something more was needed, he declared, and that task fell to Bill Wilson and an alcoholic physician from Ohio named Bob Smith, who created Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.

Dr. Markel asks: Were Bill Wilson’s spiritual awakening and influential sobriety the products of a belladonna hallucination shortly after his discussions with his friend Ebby Thacher? Could they have been incited by his alcohol withdrawal symptoms? Or did something else happen to him that science cannot explain? In the end, millions of people who have benefited from Alcoholics Anonymous and similar 12-step programs around the world would say that such pharmacological, physical, or spiritual parsing hardly matters.