William Awl was born on May 24, 1799, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He studied medicine at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and, in 1825, established a practice in Lancaster, Ohio. As a physician, Awl sought to improve medical care for the imprisoned, the blind, and the mentally ill. At this point in United States history, many Americans believed that God wanted them to reform society. God had blessed the United States with victories in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Many Americans believed that, to honor God and to continue to receive God's blessing, they must create a more caring and moral society. A devoted member of the Presbyterian Church, Awl shared these views.
In 1833, the Ohio legislature appointed Awl as the physician of the Ohio Penitentiary. Two years later, Awl helped organize the Ohio Medical Association. This organization lobbied the Ohio legislature to establish a state hospital for the mentally ill and a school for the blind. Awl lobbied the legislators to assist the mentally ill, and in 1837, they succeeded in convincing the legislature to establish the Ohio Lunatic Asylum. Awl served as the director of this institution until 1850. Before creation of this institution, most mentally-ill Ohioans received no formal treatment for their illnesses. Their loved ones commonly had the ill person confined in a local jail or in the Ohio Penitentiary, hoping that their loved ones would not be able to harm themselves while under confinement. Awl believed that mental health problems were illnesses that physicians could treat, and in 1843, he even proclaimed that he had cured one hundred percent of his patients at the Ohio Lunatic Asylum. Critics of the institute and of Awl began to refer to the physician as "Dr. Cure-Awl."
In 1850, Awl resigned his position but remained devoted to helping his fellow Ohioans. In 1862, Governor David Todd appointed Awl Superintendent of the Ohio State Capitol. In 1868, Awl resigned this position to become the physician for the Ohio Institution for the Blind.
Awl became well respected in Ohio and across the United States for his dedication to others. In 1846, he was elected vice president of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane. He held this office for two years and then became president of this association for the next three years. Awl also served as an elder of the First Presbyterian Church of Columbus from 1856 until his death on November 19, 1876.