[I post this every year on this date.]
Today is being celebrated as the 83rd anniversary of the last drink by a drunken proctologist from Akron, Ohio. His sobriety eventually led to the founding of the first Twelve-Step fellowship.
Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson
William Wilson—Bill W., to four generations of alcoholics—had tried to stop drinking for many years. Bill had been in and out of hospitals repeatedly, and had been declared an incurable drunk by eminent physicians. He had blown a promising career on Wall Street and was trying to get back on his feet when he met Dr. Bob.
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.
With the help of the Oxford Group (more here), Wilson 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 accompanying urges to drink. In June 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 estimated date of his last drink, June 10th, 1935, is considered to be Founder’s Day, the birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous. There is some conjecture about the date of Smith’s las drink, but it matters only to nit-pickers and historians. What matters is that the fellowship that was born that day has spread around the world and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
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 fellowship that is AA today, with millions of current members in more than 150 countries around the world.
Neither of these men was a saint. Nor can it be said that the “system” they founded was original. The fellowship and even the 12 Steps had precursors. Wilson and Smith, however, were the ones we remember because they pushed the idea of one alcoholic helping another beyond the boundaries of Akron to New York and then to the world.
Bill and Bob continued to work with each other and with others until the death of Dr. Bob on November 16th, 1950–ironically, of colon cancer. Bill lived to see AA become the worldwide fellowship that it is today. He died on January 24th, 1971, a victim of his lifelong addiction to nicotine and cigarettes. But Bill’s desperate collaboration with Dr. Bob, and their attempts to keep each other sober, sprouted not only Alcoholics Anonymous, but eventually 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. Surely we must consider Dr. Bob to have been honored in spirit, as well.
Happy Birthday, AA, and thank you for my life.