78 Years of Anonymity

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) celebrates June 10 as the anniversary of its founding. But why and how did the organization form?

As William L White explains in Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, A.A.’s founding occurred soon after the end of Prohibition, a time when there were a lack of places for alcoholics to turn to for help. Most institutions specializing in sobriety closed during Prohibition, and those still open were available only for the upper echelons of society. Overcrowded hospitals and sham home cures only worsened the problem. With the repeal of Prohibition and the start of the New Deal, the time was right for A.A.¹

Alcoholics Anonymous can trace its roots to the Oxford Group, a spiritual movement begun in the early 20th century looking to heal the world “through a movement of personal spiritual change.”¹ In 1934, Bill Wilson (known as Bill W.), a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, heard about the Oxford Group from a member who had stopped drinking with the group’s support. After experiencing a spiritual awakening (which may have resulted from hallucinogenic medications) while at a New York hospital to treat his alcoholism, Bill W. started attending Oxford Group meetings.¹

AlcoholicsAnonymousIn 1935, Bill W. met co-founder Dr. Robert Smith (known as Dr. Bob), an alcoholic trying to remain sober with the help of the local Oxford Group in Akron. The date of Dr. Bob’s last drink—June 10, 1935—marks the founding of A.A, which formally separated from the Oxford Group in 1937 (New York) and 1939 (Akron).¹ In 1939, A.A. published Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism. The book listed and explained A.A.’s 12 steps for the first time. As White notes, it also “broke the mold on earlier books by writing, not only about alcoholism, but to alcoholics.”¹ And by alcoholics, laying out its central tenets in a way that makes it clear that the authors had been through a great deal before regaining sobriety:

“If you are as seriously alcoholic as we were, we believe there is no middle-of-the-road solution. We were in a position where life was becoming impossible, and if we had passed into the region from which there is no return through human aid, we had but two alternatives: one was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help. This we did because we honestly wanted to, and were willing to make the effort.”²

Today, we know even more about recovery from alcoholism. Treatment options still include support groups like A.A., and now also incorporate medications and behavioral therapies, often used simultaneously. In addition, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s (NIAAA) National Epidemiological Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions found that some people with alcohol dependence may recover without treatment.³ And researchers have identified genes that can both increase and reduce a person’s likelihood of becoming dependent on alcohol.4

The landscape of alcohol recovery has greatly altered since June 10, 1935. And yet tenets first written down in 1939 retain significance for A.A.’s more than two million members.5

For more on alcohol dependence, visit the NIAAA’s site Rethinking Drinking.

1. White, W. (1998). Slaying the dragon: The history of addiction treatment and recovery in America. Bloomington Ill.: Chestnut Health Systems/Lighthouse Institute.

2. Alcoholics Anonymous: The story of how many more than one hundred men have recovered from alcoholism. (1939). New York: Works Pub. Co.

3. In this issue. (2006).Alcohol Research & Health, 29(2), 72–73. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh29-2/71-73.htm

4. NIH Fact Sheets – Alcohol Dependence (Alcoholism). (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://report.nih.gov/NIHfactsheets/ViewFactSheet.aspx?csid=23

5. A.A. General Service Office. (n.d.). A.A. at a Glance. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://www.aa.org/pdf/products/f-1_AAataGlance.pdf

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