In almost every city in America, there’s probably an AA meeting happening right now. It’s one of the most well-known and historically successful recovery programs in the United States and beyond because of its focus on group accountability, support and following a concrete process.
But, like many things we take for granted as a universal presence in society, Alcoholics Anonymous has humble roots. In this piece, we’ll explore the history of AA — when AA started, who started it and why.
How Did AA Begin?
In a country where nearly 70% of adults occasionally drink alcohol, it’s inevitable that some people will develop a problem with addiction. More than 25% of adults report at least occasionally binge drinking, while an estimated 14.5 million people have alcohol use disorder (AUD), or alcoholism. When drinking behavior escalates in the face of rising consequences, it’s usually necessary to seek help for AUD. For the majority of people with alcoholism, that help comes from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), one of the most effective pathways to addiction recovery currently available.
Akron, Ohio: 1935
The history of Alcoholics Anonymous begins with a Christian society called The Oxford Group, founded in 1928. The men who would go on to establish Alcoholics Anonymous were affiliated with The Oxford Group — without it, they might have never even met. Here are the answers to some questions most people have about the history of AA:
Who started AA? As the story goes, Bill Wilson, or “Bill W,” was a Wall Street banker who drank away his career and his marriage, eventually having to spend several stints in a hospital due to alcoholism. While in treatment, a doctor named William Silkworth explained to him that alcoholism is a disease, not a moral failure, which was the prevailing belief at the time. This marks an early sign of a change in thinking about alcoholism, one that AA would embrace as a core value of its work.
When did AA start? On a business trip in 1935, Bill felt the urge to drink and sought another alcoholic to help him resist his urges. That’s how he became connected with Bob Smith, or “Dr. Bob,” a local surgeon and fellow alcoholic. Dr. Bob was so impressed with Bill’s knowledge of alcoholism that after a long conversation, Bill moved in with Dr. Bob and his wife, Anne.
Where did AA start? This all occurred in Akron, Ohio, which was a prominent city in America at the time because of its role in the booming rubber industry. In fact, Henrietta Seiberling, a member of Goodyear Tire’s founding family, was one of the people who insisted that Bill meet with Dr. Bob initially. Some of the earliest AA meetings took place at the gate lodge on the Seiberling family estate, Stan Hywet, which still exists today.
The Early History of AA
Starting with that meeting in 1935, Bill W and Dr. Bob worked out of the latter’s home in Akron, creating their plan to spread the message of recovery from alcoholism. In fact, when they started working together, Bob was still drinking — it was the influence of his new partner that finally encouraged him to get sober for good.
The two men set to work developing the early principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. One of these is still a core part of the group’s focus: to successfully achieve sobriety, an alcoholic needs another alcoholic to work with. This is still observed in modern AA groups, where members are encouraged to find a sponsor to guide them through the program.
The earliest meetings took place with just three or four people, and when Bill W moved back to New York later the same year, he began hosting meetings at his home. This is how the first two chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous came to be in New York and Akron.
A Time Line of Rapid Expansion
Here’s a chronological look at some of the most notable events that contributed to AA’s growth in the United States and overseas:
1938 — The support of the Rockefeller family: John D. Rockefeller and his son Nelson were supporters of the AA in its early days, with the younger Rockefeller presiding over an AA group. They didn’t use their wealth to support the group, however, preferring it to remain self-supporting.
1939 — The first edition of the Big Book is published: Bill W wrote the group’s founding text, originally entitled Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism, including case studies of many of the first people to experience sobriety as a result of AA programming.
1939 — AA members open the world’s first 12-step-based rehab: Bill W and Marty Mann, another AA member, found High Watch Farm in Kent, Connecticut, a place for alcoholics to recover within the AA structure.
1946 — Twelve Traditions is published as Twelve Points to Assure Our Future: This was a guide to the framework of an AA group, ensuring every group in every city would be able to operate with the same goals, mission and general structure.
1950 — Dr. Bob Smith dies: There were about 100,000 AA members at the time of his passing.
1953 — Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions is published: This marked the first time the 24 basic principles of AA appeared in the same publication.
1953 — Narcotics Anonymous begins as a 12-step group: in 1953, NA got permission from AA to use the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions as part of its own mission.
1955 — The Big Book released its second edition: At the time, AA was estimated to have over 150,000 members.
1971 — Bill Wilson dies: According to records, his final words to his fellow AA members were, “God bless you and Alcoholics Anonymous forever.”
1975 — AA hits one million members: At the time the third edition of the Big Book is released, it’s estimated AA had grown to more than one million members.
2001 — The fourth edition of the Big Book is published: It’s estimated that two million AA members and 100,800 groups were in existence, spanning 150 countries worldwide.
Goals of AA Then and Now: Does AA Still Hold Up?
The early goals of AA were very basic — the group was developed to give people struggling with alcoholism access to a supportive network of men in similar circumstances, helping them find their “higher power” as a way to achieve sobriety. From the beginning, the founders realized that to fight the disease of alcohol addiction and win, you had to do more than just abstain from drinking. AA offered members a way to change their mindset about alcohol and give them something greater to live for.
Over the years, AA has adapted to the times. The religious interpretation has grown broader as people, in general, have become less religious. And it’s no accident that AA is present in cities around the world — its approach gives members a way to maintain consistent support no matter where their lives take them.
The 12 Steps
This began a more than 20 year friendship and collaboration that would eventually grow into Alcoholics Anonymous. By the time Dr. Bob passed away from a heart condition in 1951, it’s estimated AA had helped more than 40,000 alcoholics find sobriety.
At the heart of AA’s methods is a recognition of alcoholism as a disease state rather than a sinful moral failure, as had been the predominant wisdom at the time. AA’s approach is to acknowledge the problem and follow the 12 steps Bill W. and Dr. Bob worked out together during the 1930s.
By 2020, the philosophy they crafted had grown into a society of more than 2 million members in scores of countries around the world. Studies done nearly 100 years after Bill W. met Dr. Bob have found the AA approach is nearly twice as likely to help people maintain sobriety than an unsupported “cold-turkey” effort.
How to Get Involved With AA
The history of AA shows us how its mission hasn’t changed over time. It’s been a constant force for good in the addiction treatment space. If you’re looking for a local AA group, there’s a good chance you can find one, or a similar 12-step program, pretty easily. The AA website has a handy meeting finder you can search to see if there’s a group in your area.
While AA is still highly regarded, we’ve learned that using the tenets of AA in combination with evidence-based treatment gives people the best chance to recover fully. If you’re looking for more information, contact FHE Health today.