Alcoholics Anonymous Origins
The origins of Alcoholics Anonymous can be traced to the Oxford Group, a religious movement popular in the United States and Europe in the early 20th century. Members of the Oxford Group practiced a formula of self-improvement by performing self-inventory, admitting wrongs, making amends, using prayer and meditation, and carrying the message to others.
In the early 1930s, a well-to-do Rhode Islander, Rowland H., visited the noted Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung for help with his alcoholism. Jung determined that Rowland’s case was medically hopeless, and that he could only find relief through a vital spiritual experience. Jung directed him to the Oxford Group.
Rowland later introduced fellow Vermonter Edwin (“Ebby”) T. to the group, and the two men along with several others were finally able to keep from drinking by practicing the Oxford Group principles.
One of Ebby’s schoolmate friends from Vermont, and a drinking buddy, was Bill W. Ebby sought out his old friend at his home at 182 Clinton Street in Brooklyn, New York, to carry the message of hope.
Bill W. had been a golden boy on Wall Street, enjoying success and power as a stockbroker, but his promising career had been ruined by continuous and chronic alcoholism. Now, approaching 39 years of age, he was learning that his problem was hopeless, progressive, and irreversible. He had sought medical treatment at Towns Hospital in Manhattan, but he was still drinking.
Bill was, at first, unconvinced by Ebby’s story of transformation and the claims of the Oxford Group. But in December 1934, after again landing in Towns hospital for treatment, Bill underwent a powerful spiritual experience unlike any he had ever known. His depression and despair were lifted, and he felt free and at peace. Bill stopped drinking, and worked the rest of his life to bring that freedom and peace to other alcoholics. The roots of Alcoholics Anonymous were planted.
Joining the fold...
An alcoholic from New York has a vision of the way to sobriety and is introduced to a like-minded doctor from Akron. Their first meeting will lead to the creation of a Twelve Step recovery program and a book that will change the lives of millions.
Bill and Lois join the Oxford Group
Following Bill W.’s spiritual awakening at Towns Hospital (late 1934), he and wife Lois join the Oxford Group — a nondenominational movement whose tenets are based on the “Four Absolutes” of honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love — and begin to attend meetings at Calvary House, behind Manhattan’s Calvary Episcopal Church there. Bill is inspired by the charismatic rector Rev. Dr. Samuel Shoemaker, who emphasizes one-on-one sharing and guidance.
A business trip to Akron
A short-term job opportunity takes Bill to Akron, Ohio. In the lobby of his hotel, he finds himself fighting the urge to join the conviviality in the bar. He consults a church directory posted on the wall with the aim of finding someone who might lead him to an alcoholic with whom he could talk. A phone call to Episcopal minister Rev. Walter Tunks results in a referral to Henrietta Seiberling, a committed Oxford Group adherent who has tried for two years to bring a fellow group member, a prominent Akron surgeon, to sobriety.
Bill’s group within a group
Bill is asked to speak at a large Oxford Group meeting at Calvary House. His subject is alcoholism, and after the meeting Bill is approached by a man who says he desperately wants to get sober. Bill invites the man to join him and a small group of alcoholics who meet at nearby Stewart's cafeteria after the meetings. Bill is unsuccessful in his efforts to reach these alcoholics. Eventually his ability to help alcoholics grows, after he seeks counsel from Dr. William Silkworth of Towns Hospital. Dr. Silkworth suggests he do less preaching and speak more about alcoholism as an illness.
The meeting at the gatehouse
Henrietta Seiberling, daughter-in-law of the founder of the Goodyear Rubber Company, invites Bill to the Seiberling estate, where she lives in the gatehouse (right). She tells him of the struggle of Dr. Robert S., and the meeting of the two men takes place the next day — Mother’s Day, May 12, 1935. In the privacy of the library, Bill spills out his story, inspiring “Dr. Bob” to share his own. As the meeting ends hours later, Dr. Bob realizes how much spiritual support can come as the result of one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic.
Forging friendships in Akron
Bill joins the Smiths at the weekly Oxford Group meetings held in the home of T. Henry Williams and his wife Clarace, both particularly sympathetic to the plight of alcoholics. Soon, at the suggestion of Dr. Bob’s wife Anne, Bill moves to their home at 855 Ardmore Avenue (right).
Men on a mission
Dr. Bob lapses into drinking again but quickly recovers. The day widely known as the date of Dr. Bob's last drink, June 10, 1935, is celebrated as the founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dr. Bob and Bill spend hours working out the best approach to alcoholics, a group known to be averse to taking directions. Realizing that thinking of sobriety for a day at a time makes it seem more achievable than facing a lifetime of struggle, they hit on the twenty-four hour concept.
Bill’s return to New York
Bill returns home to New York to seek a job, but his need to help other alcoholics is no less urgent. He begins to look for prospects at Towns Hospital, where he finds Hank P., an ambitious businessman who becomes his first success from Towns. Another success is Fitz M., a Southerner and the son of a minister. Both become Bill’s close friends and allies.
“The man on the bed”
Eager to carry the message, Bill and Dr. Bob search for another person to help. After a slow start, their call to Akron City Hospital yields a prospect — Bill D., a lawyer. During the visits of Bill and Dr. Bob, Bill D. takes their message to heart and promises never to drink again — a vow he keeps for life. Now remembered as the “man on the bed” (right, as depicted in a painting by an A.A. member), Bill D. becomes the third member of what will eventually be called Alcoholics Anonymous.
Weekly meetings at 182 Clinton
In an effort to strengthen his prospects’ chances for recovery, Bill welcomes alcoholics to his home at 182 Clinton Street in Brooklyn. The Tuesday night meetings soon give way to temporary residency for some participants — the kind of “way station” arrangement that Dr. Bob and his wife Anne have pioneered in Akron.
Plans for the future
In late 1937, Bill pays another visit to Dr. Bob in Akron. Comparing notes, they are astonished to find that at least 40 of the many alcoholics with whom they’ve worked have stayed sober for two years. This discovery leads to exciting possibilities: Bill and Bob discuss developing a chain of hospitals dedicated to the treatment of alcoholics; employing salaried workers who would spread the word; and literature — especially a book, meant to carry the message far and wide.
Action in Akron
Oxford Group meetings for alcoholics continue at the large home of T. Henry and Clarace Williams, with Dr. Bob sometimes joining Mr. Williams to lead meetings. The recovering alcoholics of the group refer to themselves as the “alcoholic squadron of the Oxford Group.”
A momentous meeting
Bill’s attempts to raise money for his and Bob's vision prove unsuccessful. In 1937, his brother-in-law, Dr. Leonard Strong, Jr., is able to set up a meeting with men connected to the philanthropies of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (right). At a December meeting attended by Bill, Dr. Bob, Dr. Silkworth, and a few group members from New York and Akron, the potential backers are moved and impressed by the Fellowship’s work. However, after it is pointed out that money could spoil the movement's purpose, the meeting reaps welcome enthusiasm and moral support, but no funds.
Frank Amos (right), who attended the December meeting and is a close friend of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., agrees to assess the Akron group and explore the possibility of opening a small hospital for alcoholics. In February 1938 he spends several days in the city. Impressed by the recovery rate of Akron group members, he proposes a recuperative facility to be run by Dr. Bob. To Rockefeller he recommends a sum of $50,000 for the early work, but Rockefeller thinks the Fellowship should be self-supporting. The philanthropist does, however, contribute $5,000 toward Bill and Dr. Bob’s basic needs.
The Alcoholic Foundation
Frank Amos and others who had attended the December meeting offer to confer with Bill, Leonard Strong, and various members of the New York group to consider how the movement can be given an organizational framework. As a result, the Alcoholic Foundation is formally established on August 11, 1938, with Dr. Bob as a trustee and Bill on the advisory committee.
The Twelve Steps
As he begins to write the A.A. Book, Bill comes to the point where he must outline an actual program for the recovering alcoholic to follow. Drawing on the teachings of Sam Shoemaker, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, and the Oxford Group-inspired six-step procedure used by Bill and Dr. Bob as they carry the message. The steps grow to 12, and the A.A. Twelve Step program is born.
The Big Book gets started
Bill writes a book meant to aid the alcoholic who is unable to attend meetings or find fellow alcoholics with whom to talk. At the Newark office, he dictates his handwritten notes to Ruth Hock (right) as she types, reviewing and revising drafts all the while. These chapters are mimeographed and mailed to potential financial backers, as well as to Eugene Exman, the religion editor at Harper & Brothers publishers.
Works Publishing: a farsighted plan
Harper & Brothers offers to publish the Big Book, much to the delight of Bill and the trustees. But the astute businessman, Hank P., convinces Bill to sell shares in their own company and to publish the volume themselves. Hank works up a prospectus for what will become Works Publishing Company, with 600 shares of stock selling at $25 per share.
The Big Book tests the waters
Four hundred mimeographed copies of the Big Book manuscript are sent out for comments and evaluation by members, friends, and other allies. Among those making valuable contributions are a Baltimore doctor who suggests having a physician write the introduction (a job taken on by Dr. Silkworth) and Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick (right), the highly respected minister of Manhattan’s Riverside Church, who warmly approves of the book and responds with a positive review to be used as the Fellowship wishes.
An offshoot — and new name — in Cleveland
Clarence S., a Cleveland resident who attends Oxford Group meetings in Akron, announces that he and other Clevelanders will be starting a group open only to alcoholics and their families. Like some other breakaway groups, they will also adopt the name of the Big Book mimeographs now circulating in Akron—“Alcoholics Anonymous.” In May 1939, the first A.A. meeting in Cleveland is held in the home of Al G. (also known as Abby G.), a patent lawyer.
Publication and disappointment
In April 1939, some 5,000 copies of the Big Book — titled Alcoholics Anonymous — roll off the press. After an anticipated Reader's Digest article fails to materialize and a radio broadcast results in no orders, sales are few and far between. This disappointment foreshadows a bleak summer for the New York fellowship.
Bill and Lois lose 182 Clinton Street
As the Great Depression eases and property values rise, the company that owns the mortgage on 182 Clinton Street (right) sells the building, forcing Bill and Lois to move out. Thus begins the couple’s two years of temporary residency in the homes of Hank P. and other A.A. families. Bill and Lois continue carrying the program’s message for the duration of this unsettled period.
Dr. Bob serves with Sister Ignatia
In the spring of 1939, Dr. Bob suggests to Sister Ignatia Gavin (right), with whom he had worked at Akron’s St. Thomas hospital since 1934, that they start treating alcoholics. She agrees, and over the years Sister Ignatia and Dr. Bob will bring comfort and aid to almost 5,000 hospitalized patients.
A first for women
After reading the Big Book while a sanitarium patient in Greenwich, Connecticut, Marty M. starts attending meetings at 182 Clinton Street. She will become the first woman in Alcoholics Anonymous to achieve lasting sobriety.
A lift from Liberty
Seeking publicity for A.A., Charles Towns recounts its history to writer Morris Markey, who will submit the article “Alcoholics and God” (a title with which Bill isn’t comfortable) to Fulton Oursler, editor of the popular weekly Liberty. After the article’s publication on September 30, 1939, sales of the Big Book increase by several hundred and the Newark office receives 800 pleas for help from alcoholics and their loved ones.
Another split from the Oxford Group
In the fall, tensions grow in the Akron Oxford Group, with the alcoholic members wanting more independence. The alcoholics decide to meet at Dr. Bob’s home, though Bob remains loyal to T. Henry and Clarace Williams. As this fledgling group grows, it shifts its meetings to King School, an elementary school in Akron.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. hosts a dinner at the exclusive Union Club (right) to publicize Alcoholics Anonymous. Because Rockefeller believes that A.A. should be self-supporting, and this is understood by the guests, no money is solicited or raised. Nevertheless, Rockefeller sees to it that the event receives favorable and widespread publicity. Within a month, small donations trickle in from members, slightly easing the financial difficulty faced by A.A. during this early period.
The first New York clubhouse
With the house at 182 Clinton Street no longer available for meetings, New York members meet wherever they can. Two of them, Bert T. and Horace C., find and guarantee the rent on a small building at 334 1/2 West 24th Street in Manhattan. The clubhouse (right) soon bustles with activity, and Bill and Lois, still homeless, move into one of the two upstairs bedrooms later in the year.
A.A.’s first headquarters
In March, 1940, Works Publishing moves from Newark to a small office at 30 Vesey Street (right) in lower Manhattan. Though something of a financial gamble, the move means that for the first time the Fellowship has a headquarters of its own.
A challenge to the principle of anonymity
A star catcher for the Cleveland Indians, described by the press as “rollicking” because of his heavy drinking, announces that he has achieved sobriety through his year-long membership in Alcoholics Anonymous. His name and face are splashed over sports pages nationwide. Such violation of the Fellowship’s principle of anonymity leads Bill and members everywhere to consider anonymity’s pros and cons.
Enter Father Dowling
On a rainy winter night in late 1940, a kindly clergyman from St. Louis appears at the 24th Street Clubhouse. Leaning on his cane, Fr. Edward Dowling, SJ, (right) introduces himself to Bill, states that he has been reading Alcoholics Anonymous, and then points out the parallels between the Twelve Steps and his own Jesuit order. Thus begins a spiritual sponsorship between Fr. Dowling and Bill that will last for the next 20 years.
Toronto gets the message
The Fellowship’s message will spread north when Rev. Dr. George Little, a Toronto United Church minister who is also active in the temperance movement, learns of the Big Book in 1940, orders a few copies, and gives two to a small group of alcoholics who have been gathering for mutual support. Led by Tom E., the men will become Canada’s first A.A. group as they begin to hold meetings in a room above Toronto’s Little Denmark Tavern in 1943.
The Serenity Prayer
Ruth Hock receives a newspaper clipping of the Serenity Prayer that had been printed in the New York Herald Tribune in June 1941. Ruth and many A.A. members in New York and elsewhere all immediately feel this prayer's relevancy to A.A.'s principles. Soon, the prayer is printed on cards and is being passed out to A.A. members everywhere. The prayer has since become a central part of A.A. heard in meetings around the world. The prayer's authorship is generally attributed to well-known Protestant theologian Dr. Reinhold Neibuhr.
A.A. marches west
A.A. spreads beyond Ohio, with groups beginning to meet in cities as large as Chicago and New Orleans and Houston. Alcoholics in Topeka, Fort Worth, Tucson, Omaha, and Honolulu also “join the club,” as do those in smaller towns in the Midwest and West.
The Saturday Evening Post makes history
The interest of Judge Curtis Bok, owner and publisher of The Saturday Evening Post, is piqued when he learns of A.A. from two Philadelphia friends. Bok then calls on hard-nosed reporter Jack Alexander to tell the organization’s story. The resulting 7,500-word article is published in the magazine on March 1, 1941, putting Alcoholics Anonymous on the map of public consciousness and spurring a dramatic increase in Big Book sales and membership alike.
The first specialized interest group
The first known all-women group is founded in Cleveland in 1941, making it A.A.’s inaugural specialized interest group. Women in New York, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and San Diego soon follow suit, and by the mid 1940s the ratio of women to men in the A.A. population is roughly one in six. Women’s groups light the way for other specialized groups, which will eventually include those for young people, the elderly, gays and lesbians, and doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.
Bill and Lois move to Bedford Hills
Friends in Westchester County, a half-hour north of New York City, help Bill and Lois work out a financial plan that enables them finally to acquire a house in Bedford Hills. On April 11, 1941, the couple spends their first night there. The comfortable shingled, hip-roofed house (right), which they will name Stepping Stones, affords them a measure of privacy for the first time since Alcoholics Anonymous was founded.
Bill hits the road
Membership reaches some 2,000 by Spring 1941, and by the end of the year jumps to approximately 8,000 members in 200 groups across the country. Bill begins what will be three years of traveling to visit groups, getting to know many members individually.
A.A.’s prison groups
A campaign for prison reform by Clinton T. Duffy, warden of San Quentin Prison in San Francisco, calls for addressing the special needs of inmates who had been drinking when committing a crime. Duffy seeks aid and advice from California A.A. members, leading to the formation of a prison group at San Quentin. The inmates hold their first meeting in 1942.
A letter from Australia
After reading an article on Alcoholics Anonymous in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Sylvester Minogue (right), the medical superintendent of Rydalmere Hospital in Sydney, writes a letter to the AJP with a request that his letter be forwarded to the Alcoholic Foundation. His request for information leads to his getting a copy of the Big Book and continuing correspondence with secretary Bobbie B. of the New York office, setting the stage for the startup of A.A. groups in Australia.
Bill keeps traveling
As group after group sprouts up, Bill continues traveling around the country, often accompanied by Lois. His arrival in towns large and small is cause for great excitement as A.A. members flock to hear his talks and speak with him one-on-one. The announcement shown at right invites people to hear Bill speak at an open meeting in Connecticut.
Canada’s second group forms in Windsor
In October 1943, a second Canadian group gets off the ground when alcoholics begin to meet in Windsor, Ontario.
A.A. in wartime
As World War II is fought overseas, the Fellowship does its part. An April 1943 article (right) in the Fort Worth (Texas), Star-Telegram reports that A.A. has reduced war industries worker absenteeism due to alcoholism. The article states that the A.A. program has helped as many as 5,000 workers return to their jobs.
The AA Grapevine debuts
An eight-page bulletin intended to bring A.A. news to members (including soldiers overseas) expands to become the Fellowship’s official magazine, with the first issue published in June 1944. It comes to be called A.A.'s “meeting in print.”
Box 459 opens to receive mail
“About Your Central Office,” a bulletin distributed to A.A. groups by the Alcoholic Foundation, announces “As of May 1, 1944, our new address will be P.O. Box 459, Grand Central Station.” Box 459 will become both the post office address and symbolic address of Alcoholics Anonymous. In its early days A.A. is an organization that must rely heavily on communication by mail.
Marty M. and the NCEA
Inspired largely by the efforts of Marty M., Dr. E. M. Jellinek, America’s premier researcher on alcoholism, joins two other medical authorities to form the National Committee for Education on Alcohol (NCEA). NCEA is headquartered in a Yale University Building in New Haven, CT (right). On behalf of the NCEA, Marty embarks on a nationwide tour to tell of her struggle with alcoholism.
Women’s prison groups begin to meet
The first reported women’s prison group meets on March 18, 1944, at Clinton Farms in Clinton, New Jersey.
The first French-speaking group
Dave B. of Montreal, an ex-bank clerk and accountant who had slipped far down the ladder because of alcoholism, sobers up after reading the Big Book sent to him by his sister. He contacts A.A. in New York and soon starts holding meetings in his home, launching the first French-speaking A.A. group in the world.
Knickerbocker Hospital Treats Alcoholics
At New York's Knickerbocker Hospital, a pioneering experiment accepting alcoholic patients for treatment begins. The A.A. ward is headed by our first friend in medicine, Dr. William Silkworth.
Joining the fold...
After World War II ends, A.A. groups begin to spring up in other lands, with word of the fledgling organization spreading south of the border, across the Atlantic, and to the Pacific Rim. The next decade also witnesses the Fellowship’s first international convention and the creation of the General Service Conference.
A.A.’s tenth anniversary
More than 2,500 of the Fellowship’s members and friends from 36 states and two Canadian provinces gather in Cleveland to honor Bill W. and Dr. Bob and to celebrate ten years of Alcoholics Anonymous. Sponsored by the city’s 44 groups, the two-day event includes open-house meetings, parties, a tea, an assembly at Severance Hall (right), and a closing dinner at the Carter Hotel. According to a Grapevine reporter, the speeches of Bill and Dr. Bob trace the development of A.A. with “gratitude, humility, and simplicity.”
A magazine article’s reach
“Maybe I Can Do It Too,” an article about A.A. member Edward G. that ran in the October 1944 edition of Reader’s Digest, appears in translation in several of the magazine’s international editions, as it will for the next four years. As a result, alcoholics from around the globe write to the Alcoholic Foundation seeking to learn more about the Fellowship.
First meetings in Australia
In a letter to Archie McKinnon, a psychiatric nurse interested in helping alcoholics in Sydney, Bobbie B. of the Alcoholic Foundation provides the names of two other men who share the same aim: Dr. Sylvester Minogue and Fr. Tom Dunlea, the founder of Boystown in Australia. The three nonalcoholics band together to form the country’s first A.A. group, with Rex A. the first member to achieve and maintain sobriety.
African-American groups spring up
Early in 1945, five African-American residents of St. Louis form a group that quickly expands. In Washington D.C., Jim S., sponsored by a local A.A. named Charlie, begins to hold meetings in a rented room at a local YMCA; Jim later helps start the first group in Harlem. By 1950, African-Americans will have formed groups in Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and other cities and towns. In a country of great diversity, A.A. groups will welcome all alcoholics who wish to stop drinking.
An Atlantic outpost
After seeking advice from the Alcoholic Foundation, Steve V., an A.A. member formerly of Trenton, N.J., forms a group in St. Georges, Bermuda. It jumps from two to six members within a month and grows quickly thereafter. The next year, the Hamilton Mid-Ocean News will publish a series of twelve articles on Alcoholics Anonymous.
The lighter side
The reports and letters printed in the Grapevine are interspersed with the occasional alcohol-related cartoon, like the “Down Alibi Alley” submission by a member (right). Early editions of the magazine also include a jokes column called “Barley CORN!!”
Overtures from Hollywood
In the wake of the success of The Lost Weekend — the Oscar-winning 1945 film about a struggling alcoholic — three Hollywood studios offer A.A. as much as $100,000 for rights to the Fellowship’s story. The Alcoholic Foundation, fearing such films would amount to a violation of privacy, refuses the offers on behalf of A.A. members.