Origins

The unlikely coming together of the two cofounders of AA, ''Bill W.'' and ''Dr. Bob'' (William Griffith Wilson, a stockbroker, and Robert Holbrook Smith, a surgeon)—both pronounced alcoholics—is probably the most concrete event in AA's origins. Anonymity was basic, but there were other factors, among them Bill W.'s experiences prior to contact with Dr. Bob. Had it not been for the readiness these experiences generated in Bill W. to interact in a unique way with Dr. Bob, their initial meeting might have turned out to be the fifteen-minute encounter the doctor had initially planned.

First, Bill W. had reached a point of profound hopelessness. Second, he had had a chance encounter with an old drinking friend—Ebby T.—who despite strong and similar feelings of hopelessness had achieved considerable sobriety. Third, Ebby T. attributed this accomplishment to the Oxford Group, a nondenominational movement with no membership lists, rules, or hierarchy. It embraced specific ideas that would soon find their way into AA practice: For example, members alone were powerless to solve their own problems; they must carefully examine their behavior and try to make restitution to others they had damaged; and they practiced helping others, resisting personal prestige in the process.

Next, a severe relapse had forced Bill W. into a hospital, where he had visits from Ebby T. and where Bill W. longed for the sobriety Ebby seemed to have. Following a cry of lonely desperation and agony, he reports that ''the result was instant, electric, beyond description. The place lit up, blinding white . . . came the tremendous thought. 'You are a free man''' (W.W., 1949, p. 372). As a result of these accumulated experiences, Bill W. decided on two strategies. One was to take his story to other alcoholics and the other was to become an evangelist, because of his spiritual experience. Even though he brought many alcoholics home with him and preached at them, he utterly failed and almost returned to drinking himself. But his account underscores how he came to realize that ''to talk with another alcoholic, even though I failed with him, was better than to do nothing'' (W.W., 1949, p. 374).

Two other experiences accumulated. He discovered that some medical authorities considered alcoholism a disease. Almost instantly, he replaced evangelism with science. Finally, in an effort to recoup some financial losses, he pursued a slim business opportunity in Akron, Ohio, on May 11 and 12, 1935. An Episcopalian minister there put him in contact with an Oxford Group member who, in turn, arranged for a meeting the next day with Dr. Bob. Abandoning his evangelical approach, he used his newly found scientific/disease approach with the doctor. An immediate rapport developed between the two men, and they talked until late into the night. Dr. Bob was, in effect, Bill W.'s first follower (Trice & Staudenmeier, 1989). Dr. Bob had only one ''slip ' during the next month, but soon thereafter the two began working together on other alcoholics, using the sickness/scientific approach. By August 1936, AA meetings, within an Oxford Group context, were being held both in Akron and New York City. Soon, however, both Bill W. and Dr. Bob decided to sever their relationship with the Oxford Groups, and the small AA groups were on their own. By 1940, their newly formed board of trustees listed twenty-two cities in which groups were well established and holding weekly meetings. Soon thereafter, The Saturday Evening Post, a popular magazine with a wide circulation, published an article simply entitled ''Alcoholics Anonymous.'' It proved to be a compelling media event for the AA program, and a flood of positive responses and new groups resulted. Ever since then, AA growth has steadily expanded.

Two coordinating groups have acted to link together the thousands of AA local groups in the United States and abroad. In AA's first year the founders, along with members of the first New York City group, formed a tax-free charitable trust with a board of trustees composed of both alcoholic and nonalcoholic members. It acted as a mechanism for the collection and management of voluntary contri butions and as a general repository of the collective experience of all AA groups.

Today the board of trustees consists of fourteen alcoholic and seven nonalcoholic members who meet quarterly. At an annual conference, specific regions elect the alcoholic board members for four-year terms. The board appoints the nonalcoholic members for a maximum of three terms of three years each. An annual conference was established in 1955 at AA's Twentieth Anniversary Convention. It expresses to the trustees the opinions and experiences of AA groups throughout the movement. A General Service office (GSO) in New York City interprets and implements the deliberations of these two groups on a daily basis.

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