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Brief History of AA and the 12 Steps

History of Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the most well-known recovery program in history. It is also the largest, with over 118,000 individual groups and meetings in 180 different countries around the world. Despite it’s widespread influence today, AA had a humble beginning as a meeting between two alcoholics in Akron, OH. Their names are Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. This post is a (brief) explanation of how it got its start.

Who is Bill W?

Bill W was a stockbroker from New York City. After he served in the military during World War II he attended law school but never graduated because he was too drunk to pick up his diploma! He ended up trading/speculating on stocks and traveled the country advising his clients. Bill’s drinking ruined his reputation over time and he ended up being hospitalized multiple times. While in the hospital he was under the care of Dr. William Silkworth. Dr. Silkworth shared his belief that alcoholism was both a physical and mental illness with Bill. Specifically, he believed that alcoholism is a Bill Wilson Founder AAcraving, a physical allergy, and an obsession of the mind.  Bill got some hope from knowing that his drinking was also a physical condition but he still couldn’t remain sober. He was told that he would eventually die from his drinking or end up with wet brain.

In 1934 Bill had a meeting with an old friend of his named Ebby, who was also an alcoholic. He was surprised to find out this friend of his had been able to maintain sobriety through a religious group called the Oxford Group. Despite this, Bill continued drinking and ended up hospitalized for the fourth time. During this hospitalization he had delirium tremens. Ebby visited him while he was undergoing treatment and encouraged him to turn himself over to the care of God. It was later that night when Bill had his “white light” experience. He cried out “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!”. It was then that he saw a light, had feelings of ecstasy, and felt serenity. Bill never had another drink from this moment until the end of his life.


How did AA start?

Bill joined the Oxford Group with the hopes of helping others stay sober. Unfortunately he was not able to help anyone else despite maintaining his own sobriety. Then, in 1934, Bill was at the conclusion of an unsuccessful business trip in Akron, OH. He had the urge to drink and knew that if he didn’t help another alcoholic he would end up doing so. He started calling numbers out of a church directory and eventually ended up making contact with Dr. Bob. Bill shared what he learned from Dr. Silkworth (that alcoholics have both a physical allergy and mental obsession) and the story of his spiritual experience.

The Big Book of AA explains what happen next on page XVI: “This physician had repeatedly tried spiritual means to resolve his alcoholic dilemma but had failed. But when the broker gave him Dr. Silkworth’s description of alcoholism and its hopelessness, the physician began to pursue the spiritual remedy for his malady with a willingness he had never before been able to muster. He sobered, never to drink again up to the moment of his death in 1950.”

This made it very clear that one alcoholic helping another through sharing the message was the solution. Bill and Dr. Bob then went to a hospital in Akron in an attempt to help a third alcoholic. They worked with a man named Bill D. who remained sober and was the third member of (what was to become) Alcoholics Anonymous.

Bill Dotson Man In Bed Third AA Member

An illustration of Bill W. and Dr. Bob at Bill D’s bedside, sharing the solution to their alcoholism in an attempt to help him recover.

Beginning of the Fellowship (1934-1940)

After Bill D. stayed sober, the three men began meeting with other alcoholics in the upstairs room of Dr. Bob’s Akron home. One year later, in 1935, a second group had formed in New York City. By 1939, a third group had formed in Cleveland and 100 alcoholics had been able to get sober. 1939 is also the year that the book Alcoholics Anonymous was published. This book explained the ideas and philosophies that the 100 men had used to stay sober. The highlight of this being the twelve steps. As time went on, the group took on the name of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous.

From this point on the growth of AA was rapid. Due to the overwhelming growth of the fellowship, the group started sending members out to find and help other alcoholics. This helped them come to a realization that recovery couldn’t be mass produced, nor limited to just the ground that the founding members could cover. Bill and Dr. Bob had formed a trusteeship in New York for the budding group and some close friends of John D. Rockefeller had joined the board. They had some initial attempts to raise money but Rockefeller (wisely) declined to donate because of the risk the large amounts of funds could do to the group. Instead, AA became self-supporting.

Through their own contributions, Bill and Bob opened a small office in New York to help them distribute the book and take calls. After the opening of the office, a local news publication wrote an article about AA and John D. Rockefeller hosted a dinner for some of his most prominent friends to help raise awareness. The response was drastic and the then small group began to receive thousands of letters. By the end of 1940 there were new AA groups popping up all over the country and membership was reported to be over 2,000.

Initial Growth (1941-1950)

The growth of Alcoholics Anonymous from here was incredibly rapid. The membership numbers had tripled from 2,000 in 1940 to 6,000 in 1941. While it was clear that Alcoholics Anonymous was successful in helping people recover, there was the question of if this many groups and individuals could work together to continue spreading the message. Luckily, by 1946 it was clear to the group what attitudes, positions, and philosophies worked for the best. Bill wrote the Twelve Traditions utilizing the problems that he had seen rise over the last several years with the growth of the fellowship. Through the use of these traditions, by 1950 the problems that had been apparent in earlier years had all but disappeared. AA had it’s first international convention in Cleveland and Dr. Bob made his last public appearance sharing his goals for AA to remain simple and the official codification of the twelve traditions.

Dr. Bob passed away on November 16, 1950. By the time of his death, reported AA membership was over 100,000.

Later Years as AA Comes to Age (1951-1971)

By 1951 the New York central office had again grown in duties, now serving as a public relations department, giving advice to new groups, serving as liaison for other agencies treating alcoholism, and as central publishers of a growing library of AA materials. Despite it’s importance, this office was still controlled by the small group of initial trustees. In 1951, AA had it’s first General Service Conference where the trustees heard from delegates from all over. Bill W later said of the conference “The delegates . . . listened to reports from the Board of Trustees and from all of the services. There was warm but cordial debate on many questions of A.A. policy… [It was proved] as never before that A.A.’s Tradition Two was correct: Our group conscience could safely act as the sole authority and sure guide for Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Four years later, at the second General Service Conference in St. Louis, Bill W. (acting on behalf of the old-timers from the beginnings of the fellowship) turned future care and direction over to the conference and trustees as a whole. It was at this point that Alcoholics Anonymous came of age.

Bill W. passed away on January 24, 1971. His last words to his fellow alcoholics were “God bless you and Alcoholics Anonymous forever” given at the 35th Anniversary International Convention.

1971 to Today

Not long after Bill’s death AA reached over 1 million members worldwide. By the year 2000, there were an estimated 2.1 million active members and over 100,000 individual groups around the globe.  In 2010 there were 27,000,000 copies of Alcoholics Anonymous distributed worldwide (The Big Book) and the fellowship’s growth has not slowed down since. Today you can find an AA meeting in nearly every city and country in the world.

Beyond the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship, the twelve steps have been utilized to form other programs helping people recover from a plethora of other issues that they may face. While all the fellowships are different in relation to the substance or activity being recovered from, they utilize the same program that Bill W. and Dr. Bob pioneered. Some, but not nearly all, of these programs are Narcotics Anonymous, Eating Disorders Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Heroin Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Gambler’s Anonymous, and more.



If you are struggling with alcoholism or addiction, the fellowship of AA could be the solution you’ve been looking for. Here at Open Sky Recovery, our clients have access to one of the largest 12 step communities around the world with thousands of meetings every week. Whatever meeting someone may be looking for is likely within a short drive of our house. Even if you aren’t looking for sober living, please feel free to give us a call and we might be able to provide some guidance.