The origins of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can be traced back to the Oxford group, a Protestant Christian Bible Study group that was started in Oxford University by Dr. Frank Buchman. The founders of AA are Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith (Dr. Bob). They met while Bill was on a business trip in Akron, Ohio. The day Dr. Bob had his last drink and entered sobriety was June 10, 1935. This is the day AA considers to be its founding day.
This is the name people all over the world use to refer to Dr. Robert Smith. A surgeon by profession, he suffered privately, trying to kick the habit until he met Bill Wilson.
Dr. Bob was the only child of a Judge and his devoted wife. The couple were devout members of a congregation in St. Johnsbury, Ohio. In his teenage years, he had his first drink while attending Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. After graduation, he worked for three years before pursuing his career in medicine.
Dr. Bob started using alcohol heavily around the time he was in medical school. He first studied at the University of Michigan, then he moved to Rush University (located at Chicago) where he graduated. He got a spot as an intern in the City Hospital of Akron. He decided to stay in Akron and later on got married to Anne Ripley. (He met her during his senior year in Dartmouth).They had two kids, Smitty and Sue. Dr. Bob specialised in colorectal surgery. His drinking interfered with his practice.
During the years that ensued, Dr. Bob lived his life trying to stop drinking, hiding his drinking from his spouse, and making enough money to support his family while being heavily addicted.
Here are some things we know about Anne Smith, known as “The Mother of AA”. Her son Smitty describes her as a quiet and soft-spoken woman who had steadfast faith in God, and a huge amount of patience for his dad. Researchers who preserved her private journals remark that she wrote a lot about the Christian God. This is understandable considering the prevailing beliefs and norms of her time.
When Dr. Bob was trying to get better from his drinking habit, he admitted himself in various hospitals and into alcohol rehab with the hope that he would be able to stop.
A sanitarium is a place where people stayed to recover from chronic illnesses. In late-nineteenth and twentieth century, they were built to house people who had tuberculosis. (It takes at least six months to cure tuberculosis.) Patients needed a place where they will not infect other people, so sanitariums appeared all over America and some parts of Europe.
Before AA started, people believed that committing themselves into sanitariums can help cure what they called “Dipsomnia”. This term is the earliest term referring to alcoholism as a disease and not a matter of weak morality. It was in this setting and scene that Dr. Bob met Bill Wilson.
The world knows him as Bill W., the co-founder of AA began drinking heavily in early adulthood, during his military training. He was a successful stock market trader until the economic crash of 1929. Because of heavy drinking, it was difficult for him to support himself or his wife. He was married to Lois Wilson, but they never had kids. Not much is known about Bill W.’s wife, but for the fact that she stood by him until his death at age 75.
In 1933, Bill W. was committed to Charles B. Towns hospital, which was located in Manhattan. He was treated using “The Belladona Cure” by then Alcoholic Specialist Dr. William Silkworth. Bill W. was under the influence of the belladonna drug when he had the profound vision that changed his life.
At that time he saw the vision, he was an agnostic who was sceptical about of religious beliefs. His personal account of this encounter with “a higher power” described how a white light entered the hospital room and saved him from alcoholism. After this spiritual awakening, he felt free from his addiction and became sober.
Interestingly, Bill W.’s paternal grandfather was also an alcoholic. On a mountain hike, he had a religious experience while under the influence of psilocybin (hallucinogenic mushrooms). After that experience, he also found sobriety.
There are many accounts such as those experienced by Bill and his grandfather. These are called Peak Experiences or Mystical Experiences. First mentioned by Abraham Maslow, peak experiences are explained as altered state of consciousness, where you feel a connection to a “Higher Power”. Some people call the higher power “God”, some call it their guardian angel, and some people use the word “universe”. Whatever it is, the peak experience changes how you feel and act in a profound way. It is as if you were re-programmed. Something shifts in a neurological level, and there is an undeniable feeling of being shifted away from the past state.
We can surmise that after his peak experience or vision, Bill W. felt released form his addiction. His and his paternal grandfather’s similar experience suggest their alcoholism is a family trait that was inherited. Not only that, both of them began to live sober after seeing a profound vision. Perhaps we can argue that this has something to do with their genetics too.
When Dr. Bob and Bill W. met, they found mutual support to be the bedrock of sobriety. Bill W. was at the bar of Mayflower hotel, fighting an urge to drink when he realised can only suppress his urge by finding another alcoholic to help. At the time they met, Bill W.’s was involved with the Oxford group. Having found spirituality, he gravitated towards the teachings of the group that taught people to lean on God and surrender. Only by surrendering to a higher power could a person be able to experience true change.
In time, the pair adapted the teachings of the Oxford group and founded their own group. In 1938, after helping 100 alcoholics recover, they formalised their main tenets by publishing a book entitled, “Alcoholics Anonymous.” This book outlined the famous 12 Steps, which are still used to this day to help millions of people recover from alcohol addiction.