On This Day … 10 June [2022]

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.).

Bill Wilson

William Griffith Wilson (26 November 1895 to 24 January 1971), also known as Bill Wilson or Bill W., was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

AA is an international mutual aid fellowship with about two million members worldwide belonging to approximately 10,000 groups, associations, organizations, cooperatives, and fellowships of alcoholics helping other alcoholics achieve and maintain sobriety. Following AA’s Twelfth Tradition of anonymity, Wilson is commonly known as “Bill W.” or “Bill.” In order to identify each other, members of AA will sometimes ask others if they are “friends of Bill”. Although this question can be confusing, because “Bill” is a common name, it does provide a means of establishing the common experience of AA membership. After Wilson’s death in 1971, and amidst much controversy within the fellowship, his full name was included in obituaries by journalists who were unaware of the significance of maintaining anonymity within the organisation.

Wilson’s sobriety from alcohol, which he maintained until his death, began 11 December 1934. In 1955 Wilson turned over control of AA to a board of trustees. Wilson died in 1971 of emphysema complicated by pneumonia from smoking tobacco. In 1999 Time listed him as “Bill W.: The Healer” in the Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an international mutual aid fellowship dedicated to abstinence- based recovery from alcoholism through its spiritually inclined Twelve Step programme. Following its Twelve Traditions, AA and autonomous AA groups are self-supporting through the strictly voluntary contributions from members only. The Traditions also establish AA as non-professional, non-denominational, and apolitical, with an avowed desire to stop drinking as its sole requirement for membership. Though AA has not endorsed the disease model of alcoholism, to which its program is nonetheless sympathetic, its wider acceptance is partly due to many members independently promulgating it. A recent scientific review shows that by many measures AA does as well or better than other clinical interventions or no treatment. In particular, AA produces better abstinence rates with lower medical costs. As of 2020, having spread to diverse cultures, including geopolitical areas normally resistant to grassroots movements, AA has estimated its worldwide membership to be over two million with 75% of those in the US and Canada.

AA marks 1935 for its founding when Wall Street analyst and newly recovering alcoholic Bill Wilson (Bill W.), then reeling from a failed proxy fight, sought to stay sober by commiserating with detoxing surgeon Bob Smith (Dr. Bob). Wilson put to Smith that alcoholism was not a failure of will or morals, but a malady from which he had recovered as a member of the Christian revivalist Oxford Group. After leaving the Oxford Group to form a fellowship of alcoholics only, Wilson and Smith, along with other early members, wrote Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism, from which AA acquired its name. Published in 1939 and commonly called “the Big Book”, it contains AA’s Twelve Step recovery programme. Later editions included the Twelve Traditions, first adopted in 1946 to formalise and unify the fellowship as a “benign anarchy”.

The Twelve Steps are presented as a suggested self-improvement programme of initially admitting powerlessness over alcohol and acknowledging its damage, the listing of and striving to correct personal failings, the making of amends for past misdeeds, and, in order to stay recovered, the pursuit of continued spiritual development while helping other alcoholics towards sobriety through the Steps. The Steps also suggest the healing aid of an unspecified God – “as we understood Him” – but are accommodating to agnostic, atheist, and other non-theist members.

The Twelve Traditions are guidelines for AA as a whole, as well as for how members and groups should interact within AA and advising on conduct as to how it might affect AA “as a whole”. Besides making a self declaration of being an alcoholic the only requirement to join, the Traditions hold that dogma and hierarchies are to be avoided and that “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions”; without threat of retribution or means of enforcement, they urge members to remain anonymous in public media To keep out of public controversy, they declare that AA will have no opinions on outside issues or involvement with other causes, and that members or groups should not use AA to gain wealth, property or prestige. Within AA its groups are autonomous and self-supporting – declining outside contributions, but they are barred from lending the AA name or financial assistance or any kind of support to other entities or causes.

With AA’s permission, subsequent fellowships such as Narcotics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous have adapted the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions to their addiction recovery programmes.

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