June 10th is the 74th anniversary of the founding of AA by a stockbroker from New York, only a few months sober and fearful of drinking, and a drunken proctologist from Akron, Ohio.
Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson
William Wilson—Bill W., to generations of alcoholics—had tried to stop drinking for many years. A sometime successful businessman before the Crash of ’29, he had made fortunes—and lost them because of his inability to stay dry. Bill had been in and out of hospitals repeatedly, and had been declared an incurable drunk by eminent physicians.
Dr. Robert Smith had tried to dry out many times. He ran a successful medical practice in Akron down to nothing and was reduced to staying at home and drinking, seemingly without any ability to stop. His health had already been affected by the constant saturation of his body with alcohol, and he had developed a painkiller addiction as well. By his own testimony he had resigned himself to his fate as an incurable alcoholic.
The stockbroker had, through the auspices of the Oxford Group, managed to stay abstinent for several months. The Oxford Group’s tradition of testimony to other members, combined with prayer, had given Bill the fortitude necessary to stay dry for that period of time, but he was prone to bouts of depression throughout his life, and to accpmpanying urges to drink. In July of 1935, he had been in Akron for some time on assignment from his employer, and very much “needed” a drink.
Wilson got the idea that if he could talk to another alcoholic about what was happening with him—talk with someone who could really understand what he was going through—he might be able to withstand the compulsion to drink. Through a combination of events that can in retrospect only be called serendipitous, he was put in touch with Dr. Bob. As a result of their meeting and talking, Bob Smith was able to stop drinking too, one day at a time. The date of his last drink, June 10th, 1935, is considered to be the birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Bill remained in Akron with Bob and his wife Anne for some time. Anne was tremendously supportive of both of them, as was Bill’s wife, Lois. (Anne and Lois were the founders, in 1951, of Al-Anon, a fellowship for families and friends of alcoholics.) Over a period of several weeks Bill and Bob found others to talk with about alcoholism in order to help keep themselves sober. Bill carried the “message” back to New York, and from that kernel grew the mighty tree that is AA today—estimated to have in excess of two million current members in more than 150 countries around the world.
Bill and Bob continued to work with each other and with others until the death of Dr. Bob on November 16th, 1950. Bill lived to see AA become the worldwide fellowship that it is today. He died on January 24th, 1971. Bill’s desperate collaberation with Dr. Bob, and their attempts to keep each other sober, sprouted not only Alcoholics Anonymous, but Narcotics Anonymous and the 150-plus 12-step fellowships that exist today.
In the year 2000 Bill Wilson was named one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century by Time Magazine. See the citation here. Surely we must consider Dr. Bob to have been honored, in spirit, as well.
Happy Birthday, AA, and thank you for my life.