Alcoholics Anonymous born: June 10, 1935
Dr. Bob Smith, an Akron, Ohio doctor, takes his last drink of alcohol, a beer to calm his nerves before beginning surgery. He then gives up booze in response to a long conversation he had had a few weeks earlier, on Mother’s Day, with a man he had just met, a New York stock broker named Bill Wilson.
Wilson, whose own alcoholism had badly damaged his career, had stopped drinking the previous December while he was hospitalized after yet another bender. As Wilson had described it, he had a powerful spiritual experience that made him believe that only an alcoholic could help another alcoholic. He began going to meetings of an organization called the Oxford Group, which emphasized Christian fellowship as the way to help alcoholics take control of their lives.
That was a big part of the message Wilson shared with Dr. Smith while he was in Akron on business in the spring of 1935. As the story goes, Wilson had been tempted to go into the bar of the hotel where he was staying, but instead he started calling local ministers to see if they could put him in touch with another alcoholic. That’s how he ended up meeting Bob Smith, who, at first, wasn’t much interested in talking to another drunk. But they hit it off, and within a few months, after Wilson had moved in with Smith and his wife for the summer, the pair started meeting with alcoholics in an Akron hospital and made their first convert, a lawyer who vowed to never drink again. He also agreed to join their group, which eventually became known as Alcoholics Anonymous.
To help spread their message that alcoholism is not a moral failing, but rather a physical disease and addiction, and to provide a program for recovering alcoholics to follow, Smith and Wilson published in 1939 a book titled Alcoholics Anonymous, although it would come to be known as simply “The Big Book.” It outlined A.A.’s now famous 12 steps, from acknowledging that an alcoholic is powerless over alcohol, to admitting “to God, ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” to making a list of “all persons we had harmed, and be willing to make amends to them all.”
Both book sales and membership received a big boost in 1941 when The Saturday Evening Post, one of America’s most popular magazines, published a laudatory story about it. Three years later, an article titled, “Maybe I Can Do It Too” appeared in the international editions of Reader’s Digest, sparking inquiries about the organization from alcoholics all over the world.
While A.A.’s founders were able to eliminate alcohol from their lives, both remained heavy smokers. Dr. Smith died of cancer in 1950. And before he died in 1971, Wilson, although suffering from advanced emphysema, was known to turn off his oxygen machine so he could smoke a cigarette.
Their legacy, however, continued to grow. In 1973, the one millionth copy of Alcoholics Anonymous was presented to President Richard Nixon at a ceremony at the White House. Three years later, membership in A.A. went over 1 million.
While the group’s membership in America plateaued in the 1990s, it still has more than 2 million members around the world today.
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