Alcoholics Anonymous is Founded
Bill Wilson, a stockbroker and a drunk from Brooklyn, N.Y., thought he had found the secret of kicking the bottle.
But on a business trip to Akron, Ohio, in May he found himself outside a bar, tempted and desperate. In the past, he had fought the urge by talking to other alcoholics, who truly understood his struggle. Through a church group, he found local surgeon Robert Holbrook Smith.
Dr. Bob and Bill W., as Alcoholics Anonymous members know them, promised to keep each other sober, following Bill W.'s strategy: a simple set of principles—later refined into 12 steps—that would become the foundation of America's self-help culture. Alcoholics, he said, must admit they are powerless over their addiction. They must make amends to all those they have harmed. And they must submit to God—however they define the deity.
The advice did not immediately take. Dr. Bob went to Atlantic City, N.J., for a convention; several days later, he showed up at the Akron train station, smashed. On June 10, the dried-out but still jittery doctor was due in surgery. That morning, Bill W. gave Dr. Bob a bottle of beer—to steady his scalpel hand. The operation was a success. The beer was Dr. Bob's last. And the two men pledged that day to work to bring Bill W.'s principles to other alcoholics, one day at a time.
AA is an offshoot of the Oxford Group: a non-denominational movement modeled on first century Christianity. Oxford Group members ("Groupers") were not primarily focused on sobriety, but counted alcoholic members. Alcoholic Grouper Ebby Thacher recruited former drinking buddy Bill Wilson to the Group, telling Wilson he was sober because, he said, "I've got religion", and that Wilson could do likewise. To account for Wilson's alienation from religion, Thacher suggested that Wilson fashion a personal version of what Thacher alternately called "God", "another power, or "higher power".
Struck that Thacher was a "hopeless" alcoholic like himself, and feeling that they "shared a kinship of common suffering"; Wilson continued to meet with him. Within days Wilson ceased drinking and, at Thacher's urging, handed himself over to the care of God. Joining the Oxford Group Wilson sought out other alcoholics. None stayed sober until he met in Akron Ohio with Grouper Dr. Bob Smith. Meeting often with Wilson, Smith quit drinking within 30 days, and the date of Smith's last drink June 10th, 1935 is marked by AA for its anniversaries.
Wilson and Smith became convinced that it was through working with other alcoholics that they stayed sober, but the new alcoholic Groupers they worked with seemed less than pious. An associate pastor accused them of being a "secret, ashamed sub-group" engaged in "divergent works". AA historian Ernest Kurtz explained the eventual split from the Group:
"...more and more, Bill discovered that new adherents could get sober by believing in each other and in the strength of this group. Men [the first women member had not yet appeared] who had proven over and over again, by extremely painful experience, that they could not get sober on their own had somehow become more powerful when two or three of them worked on their common problem. This, then, whatever it was that occurred among them, was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves. They did not need the Oxford Group."
According to Wilson: "The Oxford Groupers had clearly shown us what to do. And just as importantly, we learned from them what not to do." Among the Oxford Group practices AA maintained were informal gatherings, a "changed-life" developed through "stages" and working with others for no material gain. AA's analogs for these are meetings, the steps, and sponsorship. Anonymity, however, came about as AA wished to avoid the publicity-seeking practices of the Oxford Group. Wilson said AA was "afraid of developing erratic public characters who through broken anonymity might get drunk and destroy confidence in us."
By 1937 Wilson separated from the Oxford Group to help form Alcoholics Anonymous.
A seemingly unplanned meeting in Akron, Ohio in 1935 between two men, both of whom were termed "hopeless" alcoholics, began a program of recovery that has helped millions find sobriety and serenity.
Bill W. was one of those men. In fighting his own battle against drinking, he had already learned that helping other alcoholics was the key to maintaining his own sobriety, the principle that would later become step twelve in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
A stock broker from New York, Bill W. had traveled to Arkron, Ohio on May 12, 1935 for a shareholders' meeting and proxy fight, which did not turn out his way. Fighting desperately to maintain his sobriety, his immediate reaction was, "I've got to find another alcoholic."
A few inquiries lead him to a meeting with an Akron surgeon, forever to be remembered simply as "Dr. Bob," who had struggled for years with his own drinking problem.
The Founders Meet
The effect the meeting had on Dr. Bob was immediate, as he tells it in his own words and soon he too put down the bottle (June 10, 1935), never to pick it up again. The bond formed between the two men would grow into a movement that would literally affect the lives of millions.
Starting in an upstairs room at Dr. Bob's home at 855 Ardmore Avenue, in Akron, the two men began helping alcoholics one person at a time.
In took four years to get the first 100 alcoholics sober in the first three groups that formed in Akron, New York, and Cleveland. But after the publication in 1939 of the group's "text book" Alcoholics Anonymous, and the publication of a series of articles about the group in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the development of A.A. was rapid. Membership in the Cleveland group soon grew to 500.