Alcoholics Anonymous: Helping Since 1935

The logo of Alcoholics Anonymous (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
The logo of Alcoholics Anonymous (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1935, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith met for the first time, forming a relationship that would lead the the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Here are some things you may not have known about the group and its history.

In the 1930s, alcoholism was viewed as a moral failing and something that was “likely incurable and lethal.” Some found help through hospitals that used questionable treatment, while others were committed to asylums.

Alcoholics Anonymous traces its roots to The Oxford Group, which was a Christian fellowship that focused on improving oneself through acknowledgement of one’s shortcomings, making amends for damage caused, and working with others as a support group.

The Oxford group also believed that a spiritual conversion was necessary to make improvements.

In 1933, an alcoholic son of tire magnate Harvey Firestone became a member of an Oxford Group and had long periods of sobriety afterward. This led to the formation of a particularly strong group in Firestone’s hometown of Akron, Ohio.

Meanwhile in New York, businessman Bill Wilson, better known as Bill W., was struggling with alcoholism and undergoing a treatment called the belladonna cure in a hospital. The belladonna cure consisted of doses of hallucinogens and depressants. During a drug-induced stupor, Wilson experienced a spiritual conversion, he said. This led him to dedicate his life to sobriety and helping others get sober.

Despite his efforts, all of the alcoholics he tried to help returned to drinking. However, Wilson noted that his work helped him avoid drinking.

On a business trip to Akron, Wilson was tempted to drink and needed to find another alcoholic to talk to in order to stay sober. The Oxford Group put him in touch with a surgeon named Bob Smith, who was at the time a barely functioning alcoholic. They met for the first time on May 12, 1935. Smith would later be widely known as “Dr. Bob.”

Their first meeting, which was supposed to be limited to 15 minutes, ended up lasting six hours. Wilson moved in with Smith and his wife and they decided to try and spread their message. Smith didn’t get sober immediately, however. He had his last drink on June 10, 1935, to steady his hand before surgery. This is marked as the founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Their teachings differed substantially from the Oxford Group. They believed that alcoholics had a disease rather than a moral failing. They also realized that alcoholics needed to work with other alcoholics to remain sober and that a lifetime of sobriety starts with the first minute, hour and day of sobriety.

By the end of 1937, after working closely with the Oxford Group, Wilson and Smith still hadn’t had much success. They felt they needed to spread their message wider, so they parted with the Oxford Group and published a book, called “Alcoholics Anonymous” in 1939. It would come to be known as the Big Book by AA members.

The book largely consists of personal experiences of alcoholics, including Wilson and Smith.

It also included the famous “Twelve Step” plan to recover from addiction. The steps include admitting powerlessness over alcohol and making amends to those harmed by the alcoholic.

The original 12 steps are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The book was not an overnight success. The publishing company created to produce the book nearly went bankrupt as 5,000 copies sat in a warehouse. An appearance on a national radio show by an AA member helped spur sales. This was followed by positive articles in two national magazines.

By 1950, there were more than 100,000 members of AA. The was also the year Dr. Bob Smith died of colon cancer at 71 years old. He had remained sober since 1935.

Bill Wilson died in 1971 of emphysema at the age of 75. Wilson remained sober for the final 37 years of his life.

Studies on the effectiveness of the Alcoholics Anonymous program vary wildly. Some have shown success rates as low as 5 percent, while others have shown success rates as high as 66 percent. A 2006 review of studies found no significant difference between the results of AA and other treatments. The group itself claims that 22 percent of its members have been sober for more than 20 years.

Criticisms of AA include disagreement with its one-size-fits-all approach that excludes drinking in moderation, its basis in religion, and its position as the default treatment, which is seen by some as hampering the development of other treatment options.

The group estimates it has more than 2 million members today.

It has inspired similar groups helping with other problems such as drug use, overeating and gambling.

Our question: What is the name of the prayer that is closely associated with Alcoholics Anonymous?

Today is International Nurses Day, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Awareness Day and Day of the Finnish Identity.

It’s Limerick Day, National Nutty Fudge Day and Odometer Day.

It’s the birthday of nurse Florence Nightingale, who was born in 1820; actress Katharine Hepburn, who was born in 1907; comedian George Carlin, who was born in 1937 and skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, who is 48 today.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1965, the top song in the U.S. was “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” by Herman’s Hermits.

The No. 1 movie was “Brainstorm,” while the novel “Herzog” by Saul Bellow topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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