Who Really Founded Alcoholics Anonymous?

Bill W. made AA in his own proselytizing image, period. No, it was Dr. Bob’s gentle strength that attracted members. The debate over AA’s origins rages on today—and reveals the factions and fractures in the entire movement.

Heaven help the writer who refers to Bill Wilson as “the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous”! The inevitable outraged protests are not just on behalf of AA’s official cofounder Dr. Bob Smith. There are at least three other ardently backed pretenders to the throne when it comes to one of the most successful experiments of the last century.

To a desperate drunk trying to stay sober for a few hours, it might not matter who founded the organization that offers help. However, sobriety seems to foster a desire to argue, and many alcoholics divide themselves—typically based on personal assumptions, examined or not, about the meaning of AA, if not even larger institutions like medicine or religion—into one camp or another, self-appointed heirs of Dr. Bob’s avuncular Christianity or Bill W.’s writing and political skills or the rules and regulations of the Oxford Group.

Even the date when AA began and its place of origin remain hotly debated. Virtually everyone agrees that AA started with Bill Wilson’s own drinking problem, and Bill had his last drink on December 11, 1934. Yet the official founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous is June 10, 1935, the day of Dr. Bob Smith’s last drink—a soothing warm beer handed to him by Bill W. to steady his hands for surgery.

The first person to explain alcoholism to Bill Wilson, back in 1933, was Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, the medical chief of Towns Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where Bill had gone to dry out. Silkworth told his patient that he had been ill—that his alcoholism was a disease, not a failure of will power. This was news to the down-and-out salesman who, battered by the Great Depression and his own drinking, had already lost all of his own money and most of his wife’s. Alcoholism, Silkworth later explained, in a phrase that became an AA keystone, “is an obsession of the mind that condemns one to drink and an allergy of the body that condemns one to die.”

AA emerged out of a perfect storm of ideas (both as new as the disease model of alcoholism and as old as Puritanism and democracy) and a handful of desperate personalities with the disease and those who cared deeply about them.

Bill’s stay at Towns was not his first brush with sobriety. Before Bill Wilson got his medical enlightenment at Towns Hospital—and long before he met Dr. Bob Smith—he had joined the Oxford Group, a worldwide evangelical Christian fellowship with deep Puritan roots founded by the controversial preacher—and avid fundraiser—Dr. Frank Buchman, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the tagline: “Cultist Frank Buchman: God Is a Millionaire.” Sam Shoemaker, the head of Calvary Episcopal Church, in New York City, which was the US headquarters of the Oxford Group, had been able to help Bill Wilson’s childhood friend Ebby Thatcher stop drinking. When Bill ran into Ebby on the street, Ebby brought him into Calvary Church and the Oxford Group and introduced him to its tenets:

1. We admitted we were licked.

2. We got honest with ourselves.

3. We talked it over with another person.

4. We made amends to those we had harmed.

5. We tried to carry this message to others with no thought of reward.

6. We prayed to whatever God we thought there was.

These sound familiar to anyone who has read the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous written by Bill Wilson a few years later. The Oxford Group meetings and principles were the means by which Wilson stayed sober for the winter months of 1934 until a failed business trip he took to Akron, Ohio. There, down to a few dollars and in terror of a relapse on an empty Saturday afternoon in a hotel bar, he made a fateful call to Akron’s Henrietta Seiberling, an Oxford Group member, looking for a drunk whom he might talk to—thereby meeting Dr. Bob, a local surgeon who was at the receiving end of an ongoing intervention by his fellow Oxford Group members.

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