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.

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.

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