Born in 1873, Dr. William D. Silkworth, M.D. gaduated from Princeton University in 1896 and earned his medical degree from New York University in 1900. While in medical school, Dr. Silkworth interned at Bellevue Hospital where he first discovered his passion for treating alcoholics. Thereafter, he was a member of the psychiatric staff at the U.S. Army Hospital in Plattsburgh, New York during World War I from 1917 to 1919. He served as an associate physician at the Neurological Institute of Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan from 1919 to 1929 and is believed to have specialized in neurology. After incurring substantial losses in the stock market crash of 1929, Dr. Silkworth accepted the medical directorship at Charles B. Towns Hospital in New York which specialized in the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction.
Dr. Silkworth met Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who was a returning patient at Towns Hospital in the summer of 1933. It was he who explained to Bill the true nature of his condition — that he was smitten with an obsession of the mind and an allergy of the body. Indeed, at a time when society generally viewed alcoholism as a failure of the will or a moral dilemma, Dr. Silkworth stated, “These people do not want to do the things they do. They drink compulsively against their will . . . This is not just a vice or habit. This is compulsion. This is pathological craving. This is disease.” He later encouraged Bill to avoid approaching other alcoholics with the story of his spiritual experience, but to instead focus on the terminal nature of the disease. Dr. Silkworth believed that absent what he called an “entire psychic change” that most alcoholics were doomed.
Over the course of his career, Dr. Silkworth treated some 40,000 alcoholics. He wrote the introduction to the book Alcoholics Anonymous entitled “The Doctor’s Opinion” in which he set forth his view of the disease concept of alcoholism and endorsed the program of recovery set forth in the pages which followed. Dr. Silkworth worked at Towns Hospital until his death on March 22, 1951.
Dr. Silkworth’s work with alcoholics was truly a labor of love. In an article which appeared in The Grapevine, a publication of Alcoholics Anonymous, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, stated, “He never tired of drunks and their problems. A frail man, he never complained of fatigue. During most of his career, he made only a bare living. He never sought distinction; his work was his reward. In his last years, he ignored a heart condition and died on the job — among us drunks, and with his boots on.”