Who Really Founded AA?

By Susan Cheever 02/27/12

Did Bill W. make AA in his own image, or do others deserve equal billing? The debate over AA's origins rages on—revealing factions and fractures in the entire movement.

top. from left: Dr. Bob, Sister Ignatia, Sam Shoemaker, Bill W. and Dr. Silkworth

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.

This first encounter between Bill W. and Dr. Bob was perhaps the first AA meeting. “Our talk was a completely mutual thing,” Bill recalled. “I had quit preaching. I knew that I needed this alcoholic as much as he needed me. This was it.

“Early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others, straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and nowhere else,” Bill Wilson wrote later in recognition of this early influence. (In 1940 Wilson, Smith and Shoemaker broke with Buchman, who had by then renamed the Oxford Group, in keeping with his growing moralistic militancy as World War II unfolded, Moral Re-Armament.)

Sister Ignatia Gavin, of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Augustine, was in charge of admissions at Akron’s St. Thomas Hospital. In 1935, as Bill and Bob began to piece together what was keeping them sober, this tiny Irish immigrant in a snow-white wimple admitted an alcoholic patient under the guise of acute gastritis—making St. Thomas the first hospital in the world known to treat alcoholism as a medical condition. She gave sober men a medallion to symbolize their recovery, initiating AA's use of tokens to mark sobriety milestones; she was also the first person to understand that drunks need coffee and insisted on a coffee bar in her hospital recovery center. Together Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob realized that they needed to share their talking therapy with other drunks. Through the good offices of Sister Ignatia, they found an inexhaustible supply at St. Thomas for the next 30 years.

But was AA founded in 1935 in Akron, where Bill Wilson met Bob Smith, the man who became his mentor and partner in launching a movement whose first mission was to keep each other sober? Or was it founded in New York City, where Bill Wilson first got sober and, in 1938, wrote the book Alcoholics Anonymous? Or was it founded in Vermont, where Wilson and Smith had both grown up in small towns run by populist, grass-roots democracy—a means of governance that Bill Wilson brought to AA in the Twelve Traditions?

Silkworth, Shoemaker, Wilson, Smith, Gavin—each was necessary in his or her own way. 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 but driven personalities with the disease and those who cared deeply about them.

If not for Silkworth and the Oxford Group, Bill Wilson would not have been able to get sober. If not for Bill, Bob Smith would not have gotten sober, and if not for Bob, Bill might not have stayed sober. Without Bill, there would be no AA literature. Bill’s life as a pragmatic salesman is often cited as the ideal promotional preparation for becoming the leader of Alcoholics Anonymous, but it was only one jagged piece of a puzzle that snapped together as a social movement at the end of the 1930s—perhaps the most economically painful but politically fertile decade in American history.

Now, three-quarters of a century and millions of alcoholics and addicts later, the forces represented by each of the group's co-founders continue to play out in a dynamic tension, on a national, and even global, level. For some members of AA, it is the model of alcoholism as a disease—which has been developed and detailed in recent years by neuroscience discoveries—that serves as a touchstone; for others, it's the spiritual, even religiously fundamentalist, message adapted from the Oxford Group teachings. There are AA meetings where God is called "Our Father" and AA meetings where God is always qualified by Bill W.'s original phrase—"as we understood him"—and AA meetings where God is never mentioned at all. Old-timers grumble about the erosion of the commitment to service, while newcomers have issues with such things as powerlessness and anonymity. At times, these tensions—medical vs. moral, rationalist vs. religious, diversity vs. conformity—seem to threaten certain meetings, if not the group itself, to distraction, upheaval and worse. But the founders had the foresight to extract what was essential from each different approach and combine them to enduring, even timeless, effect.

Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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Susan Cheever, a columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.