AA’s Beginnings

In 1935, two hopeless alcoholics discovered that a power greater than themselves could restore them to sanity.

Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith

In 1935, William Griffith Wilson, a New York stockbroker, met Dr. Robert H. Smith, an Akron surgeon. Both men were hopeless alcoholics trying to get sober, and relying in part on the Oxford Group, a Christian organization that believed in the moral standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.

Under the spiritual influence of Dr. Samuel Shoemaker, one of the leaders of the Oxford Group, and with the help of a friend named Edwin “Ebby” Thacher, Wilson had gotten sober and maintained sobriety by teaching the Oxford Group’s principles to other alcoholics. Meanwhile, Dr. Smith had not been successful in achieving sobriety through his work with the Akron Oxford Group.

With six months of sobriety, Wilson traveled to Akron for a business deal that ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. Walking through the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel dejected and depressed and faced with the prospect of succumbing to the lure of the hotel’s bar, he instead went to a phone booth and began to search desperately for another alcoholic, someone like himself, to talk to. Eventually, he was put in contact with Dr. Smith. Smith agree to meet with this man who claimed to have a “cure” for alcoholism, but only for 15 minutes. Their first conversation ended up lasting for five hours.

Wilson’s story and his ideas had an immediate effect on the doctor. In Wilson, Dr. Smith found a fellow sufferer, just like him, who had somehow achieved sobriety. Wilson explained that alcoholism was a mental, physical and spiritual malady, an idea he had learned from Dr. William D. Silkworth of Towns Hospital in New York, where he had been a patient. Though a physician, Smith had never thought of alcoholism as a disease. Soon after meeting Wilson, Dr. Smith got sober, never to drink again.

The two men began working with alcoholics at Akron’s City Hospital, where one patient quickly achieved complete sobriety. Though the name Alcoholics Anonymous had not yet been coined, these three men formed the nucleus of the first A.A. group. Later that year, a second group of alcoholics took shape in New York. A third appeared in Cleveland in 1939. In a little over four years there were 100 sober alcoholics in the three founding groups.

With the establishment of Alcoholics Anonymous, based on the principle of personal anonymity, Wilson and Smith became known simply as Bill W. and Dr. Bob.

AA’s basic textbook, Alcoholics Anonymous (which is generally referred to as “The Big Book”), was published in 1939. Written by Bill W., it explains AA’s principles, the core of which is the now well-known Twelve Steps. The book includes the stories of some thirty recovered members. After the book’s publication, AA’s development was rapid.

Alcoholics Anonymous is now a worldwide organization with groups in virtually every country on the planet and a membership counting in the millions. It is widely acknowledged to be the most successful program of recovery in existence.

For more about the history and growth of Alcoholics Anonymous, check out these publications, available through Intergroup’s online bookstore:

Subscribe to The Link


Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from your friends at Houston Intergroup. We will never share your information with anyone.


You have Successfully Subscribed!