On This Day … 08 August

People (Births)

  • 1879 – Bob Smith, American physician and surgeon, co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous (d. 1950).

Bob 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.).

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 25 January 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 he 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.

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