On June 10, 1935, Bill Wilson and his friend Dr. Robert Smith set out to find the best way to reform alcoholics, and Alcoholics Anonymous was born.
The Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous
Bill Wilson, a stockbroker from New York, had success battling his alcoholism with the help of the Oxford Group, a national organization founded by Lutheran minister Dr. Frank Buchman that promoted waiting for divine guidance in every aspect of life. He attempted to help other alcoholics, but none of them were able to become sober.
In June 1935, during a business trip in Akron, Ohio, Wilson felt the temptation to drink. Using a church directory, he was able to reach a local Oxford Group member, Henrietta Buckler Seiberling, who put Wilson in contact with Dr. Bob Smith, an alcoholic who had recently joined the Oxford Group.
Wilson explained how he was able to become sober, which had a profound impression on Smith. They developed an approach to remaining sober through the personal support of other alcoholics. Seiberling insisted on emphasizing religion, even if it made certain alcoholics less likely to join.
“Well, we’re not out to please the alcoholics,” she reasoned. “They have been pleasing themselves all these years. We are out to please God. … God is your only source of Power.”
On June 10, outside an Akron hospital, Smith drank a beer to steady his hands for surgery; it would be the last drink he ever had.
Both men began devoting their free time to reforming other alcoholics at Akron’s City Hospital, and were able to help one man achieve sobriety. “Though the name Alcoholics Anonymous had not yet been coined, these three men actually made up the nucleus of the first A.A. group,” according to the Alcoholics Anonymous Web site.
In 1935, a second group of alcoholics formed in New York followed by a third group in Cleveland in 1939. Through the group, Wilson “emphasized that alcoholism was a malady of mind, emotions and body,” according to A.A.
In 1939, the group published its textbook, “Alcoholics Anonymous.” Written by Wilson, the book explained the group’s philosophy, including the now well-known 12 steps of recovery.
Alcoholics Anonymous continued to grow, spreading across the United States and Canada. According to the A.A. Web site, by 1950, there were 100,000 recovered alcoholics worldwide. Also in 1950, A.A. held its first international convention in Cleveland.
A.A.’s Growth and Message
Sources in this Story
- Akron University: Women's History Project of the Akron Area: Henrietta Buckler Seiberling, 1888-1979
- Alcoholics Anonymous: Historical Data: The Birth of A.A. and its growth in U.S./Canada
- Alcoholics Anonymous: This Is A.A.
- Akron Intergroup Council of Alcoholics Anonymous: Celebrate Founders’ Day!
- Time: Bill W.: The Healer
Alcoholics Anonymous continues to grow today. Due to the fact that the group doesn’t keep formal membership lists, it is difficult to obtain accurate figures on membership. The A.A. Web site estimates that there are more than 55,000 groups and roughly 1.2 million members in the U.S. alone.
A.A. is a fellowship, although it does not affiliate with one particular religious domination. In a pamphlet titled “This Is A.A.,” the group is outlined and defined. “We are united by our common problem, alcohol,” according to the pamphlet. “Meeting and talking and helping other alcoholics together, we are somehow able to stay sober and to lose the compulsion to drink, once a dominant force in our lives.”
The June 10 Founders’ Day is celebrated yearly in Akron; 2011 marks the 76th anniversary of A.A.
Biography: Bill Wilson
Wilson grew up in Vermont, the son of a hard-drinking father. His parents both abandoned him when he was 10, leaving him with his maternal grandparents.
Wilson drank first as a soldier and then as a businessman, “to alleviate his depressions and to celebrate his Wall Street success.” By 1933, he and his wife were living with her parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Wilson’s drinking had made him unemployable.
Getting sober was the first stop in turning his life around. Helping fellow alcoholic Smith was the second step, and paved the way for the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. According to Time magazine, “As Alcoholics Anonymous grew, Wilson became its principal symbol.” Throughout his life with the group, “he clung to the principles and the power of anonymity,” and declined Time’s offer to put him on the magazine’s cover—“even with his back turned.”
Wilson, a longtime smoker, died in 1971 of pneumonia and emphysema in Miami, where he had traveled for treatment.
Visit findingDulcinea’s Web Guide to Alcoholism to learn about alcoholism, treatment options and where to find support.