A.A. 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.

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.

About the Author



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