On This Day … 10 June

Events

  • 1935 – Dr. Robert Smith takes his last drink, and Alcoholics Anonymous is founded in Akron, Ohio, United States, by him and Bill Wilson.

Dr. Robert Smith

Robert Holbrook Smith (08 August 1879 to 16 November 1950), also known as Dr. Bob, was an American physician and surgeon who founded Alcoholics Anonymous with Bill Wilson (more commonly known as Bill W.).

Family and Early Life

Smith was born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, where he was raised, to Susan A. (Holbrook) and Walter Perrin Smith. His parents took him to religious services four times a week, and in response he determined he would never attend religious services when he grew up. He graduated from St Johnsbury Academy in 1898, having met his future wife Anne Robinson Ripley at a dance there.

Education, Marriage, Work, and Alcoholism

Smith began drinking at college attending Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Early on he noticed that he could recover from drinking bouts quicker and easier than his classmates and that he never had headaches, which caused him to believe he was an alcoholic from the time he began drinking. Smith was a member of Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity at Dartmouth. After graduation in 1902, he worked for three years selling hardware in Boston, Chicago, and Montreal and continued drinking heavily. He then returned to school to study medicine at the University of Michigan. By this time drinking had begun to affect him to the point where he began missing classes. His drinking caused him to leave school, but he returned and passed his examinations for his sophomore year. He transferred to Rush Medical College, but his alcoholism worsened to the point that his father was summoned to try to halt his downward trajectory. But his drinking increased and after a dismal showing during final examinations, the university required that he remain for two extra quarters and remain sober during that time as a condition of graduating.

After graduation, Smith became a hospital intern, and for two years he was able to stay busy enough to refrain from heavy drinking. He married Anne Robinson Ripley on January 25, 1915, and opened up his own office in Akron, Ohio, specialising in colorectal surgery and returned to heavy drinking. Recognising his problem, he checked himself into more than a dozen hospitals and sanitariums in an effort to stop his drinking. He was encouraged by the passage of Prohibition in 1919, but soon discovered that the exemption for medicinal alcohol, and bootleggers, could supply more than enough to continue his excessive drinking. For the next 17 years his life revolved around how to subvert his wife’s efforts to stop his drinking and obtain the alcohol he craved while trying to hold together a medical practice in order to support his family and his drinking.

Meeting Bill Wilson

In January 1933, Anne Smith attended a lecture by Frank Buchman, the founder of the Oxford Group. For the next two years she and Smith attended local meetings of the group in an effort to solve his alcoholism, but recovery eluded him until he met Bill Wilson on 12 May 1935. Wilson was an alcoholic who had learned how to stay sober, thus far only for some limited amounts of time, through the Oxford Group in New York, and was close to discovering long-term sobriety by helping other alcoholics. Wilson was in Akron on business that had proven unsuccessful and he was in fear of relapsing. Recognising the danger, he made inquiries about any local alcoholics he could talk to and was referred to Smith by Henrietta Seiberling, one of the leaders of the Akron Oxford Group. After talking to Wilson, Smith stopped drinking and invited Wilson to stay at his home. He relapsed almost a month later while attending a professional convention in Atlantic City. Returning to Akron on 09 June, he was given a few drinks by Wilson to avoid delirium tremens. He drank one beer the next morning to settle his nerves so he could perform an operation, which proved to be the last alcoholic drink he would ever have. The date, 10 June 1935, is celebrated as the anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Final Years

Smith was called the “Prince of Twelfth Steppers” by Wilson because he helped more than 5000 alcoholics before his death. He was able to stay sober from 10 June 1935, until his death in 1950 from colon cancer. He is buried at the Mount Peace Cemetery in Akron, Ohio.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an international mutual aid fellowship with the stated purpose of enabling its members to “stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” AA is nonprofessional, non-denominational, self-supporting, and apolitical. Its only membership requirement is a desire to stop drinking. The AA programme of recovery is set forth in the Twelve Steps.

AA was founded in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, when one alcoholic, Bill Wilson, talked to another alcoholic, Bob Smith, about the nature of alcoholism and a possible solution. With the help of other early members, the book Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism was written in 1939. Its title became the name of the organisation and is today commonly referred to as “The Big Book”. AA’s initial Twelve Traditions were introduced in 1946 to help the fellowship be stable and unified while disengaged from “outside issues” and influences.

The Traditions recommend that members remain anonymous in public media, altruistically help other alcoholics, and that AA groups avoid official affiliations with other organisations. They also advise against dogma and coercive hierarchies. Subsequent fellowships such as Narcotics Anonymous have adapted the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions to their respective primary purposes.

AA membership has since spread internationally “across diverse cultures holding different beliefs and values”, including geopolitical areas resistant to grassroots movements. As of 2016, close to two million people worldwide are estimated to be members of AA.

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