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.

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 (right), 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.

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