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.

On This Day … 24 January

People (Births)

  • 1850 – Hermann Ebbinghaus, German psychologist (d. 1909).
  • 1853 – Sigbert Josef Maria Ganser, German psychiatrist (d. 1931).

People (Deaths)

  • 1971 – Bill W., American activist, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (b. 1895).

Hermann Ebbinghaus

Hermann Ebbinghaus (24 January 1850 to 26 February 1909) was a German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory, and is known for his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect.

He was also the first person to describe the learning curve. He was the father of the neo-Kantian philosopher Julius Ebbinghaus.

Sigbert Josef Maria Ganser

Sigbert Josef Maria Ganser (24 January 1853 to 04 January 1931) was a German psychiatrist born in Rhaunen.

He earned his medical doctorate in 1876 from the University of Munich. Afterwards he worked briefly at a psychiatric clinic in Würzburg, and later as an assistant to neuroanatomist Bernhard von Gudden (1824-1886) in Munich. In 1886, he became head of the psychiatric department at Dresden General Hospital. Among his students was neurologist Hans Queckenstedt (1876-1918).

Sigbert Ganser is remembered for a hysterical disorder that he first described in 1898. He identified the disorder in three prisoners while working at a prison in Halle. The features included approximate or nonsensical answers to simple questions, perceptual abnormalities, and clouding of consciousness. Ganser believed that these symptoms were an associative reaction caused by an unconscious attempt by the patient to escape from an intolerable mental situation. The disorder was to become known as Ganser syndrome.

Bill W.

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 2 million members worldwide belonging to approximately 10,000 groups, associations, organisations, 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 of emphysema complicated by pneumonia from smoking tobacco in 1971. In 1999 Time listed him as “Bill W.: The Healer” in the Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.

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.