AA is an organization that has a history dating back nearly 90 years.
It all started when two people, Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker, and Dr. Robert Smith, a surgeon from Akron, OH, who were both battling alcoholism met for the first time. Through discussions of their similar issues, this first meeting was the beginning of the organization that is known today as Alcoholics Anonymous.
Today, these two are known as the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. They are known by their shortened names: Bill W and Dr. Bob.
Millions of lives have been saved and made better because of that meeting. Even today we say Bill W and Dr. Bob in keeping with the tradition that anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all of our traditions and that we should place principles before personalities.
The story of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous runs in parallel for a while. Two people looking for a solution to a common problem they both had – alcoholism. To tell the real story, though, we need to go back a bit and speak of some events before the two founders met.
The Oxford Group
In 1931, a wealthy businessman named Rowland Hazard had a drinking problem and consulted with the Swiss psychiatrist, and pupil of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung. Jung considered the case to be beyond medical treatment and that only a spiritual experience could help. He directed the patient to the Oxford Group.
The Oxford Group was a Christian organization that believed and considered four practices to be necessary. These were:
- Sharing sins and temptations with another Christian
- Surrendering life to God
- Making things right where people were wronged
- Listening for God’s will and following through with that will
These beliefs are echoed in the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and in many ways the Oxford Group drove the spiritual aspect of the AA which newer members come to know about like dealing with defects of character.
Rowland brought Edwin Thatcher, known as Ebby T. into the Oxford Group and they along with some others managed to find sobriety and to stay sober. Part of the Oxford Group’s belief was that converting others was necessary to stay converted. To this end, Ebby T. looked up Bill W. an old school friend who later had been a drinking buddy.
William Wilson, or Bill W, was a successful stock trader. His grandfather was an alcoholic who gave up drinking after a religious experience.
Bill W spoke about his first experiences with alcohol when he was 21 and says that very shortly after that he was drinking until he passed out. Even though he was successful, his drinking made business impossible, and his reputation was ruined. His wife, Lois, used to travel across the country with him while he evaluated businesses, to try and help him moderate his drinking. She wasn’t successful at this. As Bill became unemployable, she had to take a position at a department store for the couple to make ends meet.
In 1933 he was admitted to a rehabilitation clinic, the Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions, four times. The clinic was run by Dr. William D. Silkworth who believed that alcoholism was both a mental and a physical condition. Silkworth maintained that alcoholism was a physical allergy that resulted in the inability to stop, coupled with the mental obsession to take the first drink.
Silkworth importantly maintained that alcoholism did not imply moral failure or an inability to exercise willpower.
Near the beginning of the Big Book is a section titled, “The Doctor’s Opinion”. Dr. Silkworth is the doctor who authors this section of the Big Book. Dr. Silkworh was well “ahead of his time” in thinking the alcoholic had an illness as opposed to a lack of willpower.
In 1934 Bill W was visited by Ebby T who was now a member of the Oxford Group. Bill W recalls how he looked forward to an evening of drinking and was amazed that his old drinking mate was now sober. He wrote,
“The door opened and he stood there, fresh-skinned and glowing. There was something different about his eyes. He was inexplicably different. What had happened?
I pushed a drink across the table. He refused it. Disappointed but curious, I wondered what had got into the fellow. He wasn’t himself.” Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 9
This was how Bill learned about the Oxford Group. He, unfortunately, ended up back in the rehab clinic with delirium tremors (the dreaded DTs). When Bill spoke about his reservations about God, he reports that Thatcher said, “Why don’t you use your own conception of God?” This suggestion became a key element of AA – the Higher Power as the alcoholic perceived that power to be, or the God of my understanding. It was the key to the spiritual awakening and for the first time, the idea made sense to Bill.
While he was in the clinic, his old friend visited again and tried to convince him that only God could help him. It was during this visit that Bill W decided he would do anything to become sober. Put in the words of the third step prayer, Bill said, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God AS WE UNDERSTOOD HIM.”
Bill W managed to stay sober and tried to reach out to other alcoholics. He came close to relapsing and when on a business trip, he lost a proxy fight, became convinced that to stay sober it was necessary to help another alcoholic. He phoned around and was eventually given the number of a man named Doctor Bob Smith.
Doctor Bob Smith was 16 years older than Bill W and raised in a religious family. He decided that when he grew up, he would avoid church services. Less is spoken of Doctor Bob than Bill W and that may well be because he died in 1950 and so his years with the A.A. were not as long as Bill W who passed away in 1971. Additionally, Dr. Bob was much less of a “promoter” than Bill W and Bill did a majority of the writing for AA literature we use today.
Dr. Bob began drinking in his college days and quickly developed a tolerance for alcohol and was noted for the absence of hangovers. After he graduated from college, he worked selling hardware and then after three years decided to study medicine.
His drinking even caused him to drop out of medical school. He returned though and passed his exams. Later, during his final year of medical studies, he performed very badly in his exams and the university compelled him to stay on for another half year and stay sober in order to be allowed to graduate.
He managed to stay sober and following a two-year internship, he set himself up as a colorectal surgeon but continued to drink excessively. During the prohibition, there was an exemption for medicinal alcohol. Dr. Bob recollected that he would go through the telephone directory and write bogus prescriptions to keep himself supplied with drink.
He admitted himself to many places to try and deal with his alcoholism, a condition that he recognized as a problem. In 1933, Bob S went to a meeting of the Oxford Group. He continued going to group meetings, but sobriety eluded him. In 1935, he was approached by an alcoholic battling to stay sober. His name was Bill W.
May 12, 1935
Bill W was at a professional convention in Akron, Ohio, and was battling to stay sober. He sought out the telephone number of a “still suffering” alcoholic and was given the name and number of Dr. Bob S. After delaying the meeting for a day, Dr. Bob agreed to a fifteen-minute encounter. When they met, the fifteen minutes became six hours.
Bill W explained William Silkworth’s theories to Doctor Bob and spoke of his own spiritual experience. This was when the doctor started to fully explore the possibility of a spiritual solution. He invited Bill W to stay with him. Without a doubt, being able to share based on a common experience had an impact on both men. Not even the age difference of 16 years could overcome the common ground.
Doctor Bob wrote, “He gave me information about the subject of alcoholism which was undoubtedly helpful. Of far more importance was the fact that he was the first living human with whom I had ever talked, who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience. In other words, he talked my language. He knew all the answers, and certainly not because he had picked them up in his reading.”
Just about a month later, Doctor Bob went to a convention and had a relapse. When he returned home on June 9, 1935, Bill W gave him a few drinks to help him avoid delirium tremens.
June 10, 1935
When Doctor Bob woke up the day after his return from the convention, he had a beer to steady his nerves before starting surgery for the day. Dr. Bob was a well-known Akron surgeon. This one beer was Doctor Bob’s last drink of alcohol and was the first day of his sobriety. He would not have another drink for the rest of this life. For this reason, this is the date on which AA is considered to have been founded.
From there they helped a patient, Bill D, from Akron’s City Hospital become sober. Bill D was a lawyer and a politician and while the name Alcoholics Anonymous was not yet used, the three of them were effectively the first Alcoholics Anonymous group. Bill D’s story like Doctor Bob and Bill W’s is also in the Big Book. Shortly after that Ernie G joined, and this rounded out the four early members.
All of them had been hopeless alcoholics and were now sober alcoholics regularly meeting together. They were all still in their first year.
Bill W and Doctor Bob did not initially have a structure for regular meetings including having no venues. Initially, they brought new members to Oxford Group meetings.
The founders worked together to discover the best way to reach out to fellow alcoholics and help them achieve the “spiritual awakening” necessary for the alcoholic to achieve sobriety, to “restore them to sanity.” The next step was creating local groups.
From Doctor Bob’s house, Bill W returned to his hometown of New York City and set up a group there. This was soon followed by a Cleveland group, just about 40 miles north of Akron. The word about AA began to spread, and AA meetings started to pop up around the country.
The Oxford Group in Akron and the one in New York had different attitudes and this encouraged the AA groups to start to develop a separate identity from the group. The New York Oxford Group believed that Bill W was wrong to focus solely on alcoholics as according to Lois Wilson, the Wilsons were kicked out.
In Akron, the separation from the Oxford Group took longer but was inevitable. As early as 1939 the first 12-step rehab opened its doors. This was High Watch Farm in Kent, Connecticut, and was supported by Bill W and Marty Mann. It was the first of many addiction treatment centers for alcohol use disorder for chronic alcoholics following the AA program of recovery.
It was during this phase that the core principles of AA were laid out such as the twelve traditions and the fact that the only requirement for AA membership was a desire to stop drinking. The primary purpose was defined as carrying the message to the still-suffering alcoholic. Critically too, it was decided that there would be no central authority. Regions may have central committees that serve a coordinating function, not a governing one.
All the time the profile of this program grew. The Cleveland Plain Dealer engaged in the publication of a series of articles extolling the new movement. The Saturday Evening Post reported in 1941 that health care providers were endorsing AA, writing, “Many doctors and staffs of institutions throughout the country now suggest Alcoholics Anonymous to their drinking patients.”
Knowledge of AA groups and weekly meetings became widespread. The effectiveness was far better than interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. The success rate was high enough to even bring the organization to the attention of John D. Rockefeller, who hosted a dinner to raise the organization’s profile.
The movement showed not only the ability to relieve people of alcohol independence but also to sustain the recovering alcoholic. It helped people take charge of their own sobriety. It also moved beyond the United States to become a worldwide organization with A.A. membership being claimed in many countries including Great Britain. Across the world, a group of people gathering for the sake of sobriety is the fruit of what happened in Akron all those years ago.
The Big Book
In 1938, as the A.A. program proved more and more successful, it was decided to write a book to describe and promote the program. Bill W was the main author. It was given the name Alcoholics Anonymous, and it was from this title that the organization took its name.
The book was not initially successful despite being well received by clerical and lay reviewers and many copies of the big book lay in storage. An alcoholic named Morgan R was interviewed on a radio show called We the People to discuss his sobriety. The interview proved successful, and sales of the Big Book shot up markedly as did awareness of the organization and made it the best known of the treatment programs.
A second edition was published in 1955.
The day that Bill W reached for someone to help and found Doctor Bob was a momentous day. What sprung out of that was not just Alcoholics Anonymous, but the entire 12-step program. The program pioneered the way for other substance abuse interventions.
AA is no longer the only 12-step group. There are now groups such as Narcotics Anonymous for drug addiction and drug use as well as Gamblers Anonymous for gambling to name the best known. It also led to ancillary support organizations such as Al-Anon and Ala-Teen which are support groups for family members of those suffering from alcohol addiction.
It is not without reason that Time named Bill W one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. It also seems reasonable to consider 10 June 1935 to be a day as important to the 20th century as Time considered Bill W to be. It was the day that initiated the organization that has changed millions of lives for the better.
Note: All quotes are from the book Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as the Big Book.