The Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous

African American woman speaking during group therapy

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A meeting in 1935 between the future founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, both of whom were termed "hopeless" alcoholics, began a program of recovery that has helped millions find sobriety and serenity.

Bill W.

Bill W., a stockbroker from New York, was one of those men. In fighting his own battle against drinking, he had already learned that helping other people with alcoholism was the key to maintaining his own sobriety, the principle that would later become step 12 in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

He had been sober for about five months and had traveled to Akron, Ohio in 1935 for a shareholders' meeting and proxy fight, which did not turn out his way. 

Bill W. Meets Dr. Bob

After losing the proxy fight, Bill found himself alone and depressed, according to accounts of the events. He felt drawn to the bar in the Mayflower Hotel where he was staying. Fighting desperately to maintain his sobriety, his immediate reaction was, "I've got to find another alcoholic."

There are conflicting versions of exactly what happened next. According to the Alcoholics Anonymous website, Bill W. called various people and was eventually introduced to an Akron surgeon, forever to be remembered simply as "Dr. Bob." The surgeon had struggled for years with his own drinking problem. The two men had their first meeting on May 12, 1935.

Dr. Bob Gets Sober

The effect the meeting had on Dr. Bob was immediate, and soon he too put down the bottle (June 10, 1935), never to pick it up again. The bond formed between the two men would grow into a movement that would literally affect the lives of millions.

The First 100 People Sober

Starting in Bill W.'s home in Brooklyn and later moving to Dr. Bob's residence in Akron, the two men began helping other individuals with alcoholism, one person at a time.

It took four years to get the first 100 participants sober in the first three groups that formed in Akron, New York, and Cleveland.

But after the publication in 1939 of the group's "textbook", Alcoholics Anonymous, and the publication of a series of articles about the group in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the A.A. rapidly developed, and the membership in the Cleveland group soon grew to 500.

Alcoholics Anonymous Grows to 6,000

The response was so overwhelming, the group found itself sending out members, who had gotten only a short time in the program themselves, to work with other new members. For the first time, the founders learned they could mass produce recovery and not be limited to the ground that they themselves could cover.

After a dinner in New York in 1940, given by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to publicize the group, membership soon grew to 2,000. An article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1941 resulted in another growth period, and membership in the United States and Canada rose to a reported 6,000.

The Legacy of AA

By 1950, Alcoholics Anonymous had helped more than 100,000 people recover from alcoholism, and by 1973, more than one million copies of the Big Book had been distributed. By 2005, the number of copies sold had reached 25 million.

Since that time, the fellowship has continued to grow and has become worldwide. A number for Alcoholics Anonymous can be found in the white pages of virtually every local telephone directory.

Today members can also attend electronic meetings from any computer, cell phone, or mobile device.

Dr. Bob died Nov. 16, 1950, and Bill W. passed on Jan. 24, 1971, but the legacy they left behind continues to touch the lives of millions.

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  1. Alcoholics Anonymous. 25 millionth Alocholics Anonymous 'Big Book' to be given in gratitude to warden of San Quentin. Published June 20, 2005.

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