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Year : 2017  |  Volume : 22  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 72-73

The meeting of Bill and Bob: Helping the cause of countless alcoholics

Department of Psychiatry and NDDTC, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, India

Date of Web Publication14-Jul-2017

Correspondence Address:
Rajesh Sagar
Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi - 110 029
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/jmhhb.jmhhb_12_17

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The concept of “Alcoholics Anonymous” (AA) is familiar to mental health professionals and the general populace. The premise of the organization lies in individual suffering from problems related to alcohol embarking on a journey to submit before the almighty, taking cognizance of the effects caused by alcohol, making amends in life to people who have been harmed and taking action to prevent relapse to alcohol. The AA was formed after a fortuitous meeting of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith in Ohio. The duo subsequently embarked on the journey of helping others with alcohol-related problems. Since then, AA has grown gradually and how has more than 2 million members in its fold. This write-up traces the events that led to the meeting of Bill and Bob and the formation of AA, which led to a significant impact on individuals with alcohol use problems.

Keywords: Alcohol dependence, alcoholics anonymous, Bill Wilson, Robert Smith

How to cite this article:
Chawla N, Sarkar S, Sagar R. The meeting of Bill and Bob: Helping the cause of countless alcoholics. J Mental Health Hum Behav 2017;22:72-3

How to cite this URL:
Chawla N, Sarkar S, Sagar R. The meeting of Bill and Bob: Helping the cause of countless alcoholics. J Mental Health Hum Behav [serial online] 2017 [cited 2023 Mar 31];22:72-3. Available from: https://www.jmhhb.org/text.asp?2017/22/1/72/210699

  Introduction Top

The concept of “Alcoholics Anonymous” (AA) is familiar to mental health professionals. From a theoretical framework, AA works on the principle of 12-step facilitation.[1] It is based on the person's acceptance that he/she is powerless over alcohol and then seeks power in spirituality to achieve sobriety. The individual suffering from problems related to alcohol embarks on a journey to submit before the almighty, take cognizance of the effects caused by alcohol and make amends in life to people who have been harmed, and take action to prevent relapse to alcohol. Although it is often considered as an option in helping patients with alcohol dependence, AA warns that it is neither a cure nor a treatment for the patients. The essence of 12-step programs is that “one alcoholic or addict helping another.”[2] AA was founded in June 10, 1935, by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith.[1] Now, since AA has completed more than 80 years of its foundation, it is interesting to look back in history and see how AA came into being.

  Life of Bill Top

William Griffith Wilson (whom we know as Bill Wilson) was born to a couple in Vermont in the year 1895, on November 26.[3] His parents separated when he was 11 years of age. A few years later, he apparently experienced an episode of depression. The struggle continued in his life when he lost his beloved in his youth and failed to complete his graduation. While he was able to recover from the loss years later, his life took an upward turn 1913 onward. He graduated in 1917 and received training in the military. He then got married to his senior in 1918, to whom he was attracted to since long. While he was waiting in England for deployment to France, he visited a cathedral in the city. There he experienced the overwhelming presence of God, which filled him and reassured him. He read a tombstone which wrote, “Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier/Who caught his death/Drinking small cold beer/A good soldier is never forgotten/Whether he dies by musket/Or by pot.”

Although Bill did not witness heavy fighting while in the military, he eventually secured a position in a surety company and took night classes in economics and law. However, he could not complete his final examinations as he would often be intoxicated at that time; hence, his law career ended. So, he started working on the Wall Street, providing information to companies to brokerage houses. Although initially the brokers tolerated his heavy drinking, they later started avoiding him due to alarmingly high-levels of drinking. By late 1920s, Bill descended into alcoholism. In 1934, when he was visited by his old friend who was using alcohol in dependent pattern in the past but had turned sober with the help of a spiritual group. He suggested the same to Bill, but Bill was resistant as he did not believe in religion/existence of God. On this, Bill was suggested to create his own inception of God, a power greater than himself. His life changed when Bill met a psychiatrist in Towns Hospital, Dr. Silkworth, who taught him that chronic alcoholism was not a problem of morality but “physical allergy.” After leaving Towns Hospital, Bill was reborn. He was now sober and searched the streets of Brooklyn to help other “alcoholics” too, but in vain.

  Who was Bob Smith? Top

Dr. Robert H. Smith (also known as Dr. Bob Smith), was born to a couple in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.[3],[4] His parents took him to religious services four times a week, and in response, he determined he would never attend religious services when he grew up. Dr. Smith began drinking during his graduation when he noticed that he could recover from effects of drinking easier than his classmates and would not experience withdrawals. This caused him to believe he was an alcoholic from the time he began drinking. After graduation in 1902, he worked for 3 years selling hardware and continued drinking heavily. Later, when he returned to school to study medicine, he was getting affected by drinking, as he began missing classes. His drinking caused him to leave school temporarily, and hence, his professional degree got delayed. After attaining his medicine degree, he got married in 1915 and opened up his own office in Akron, Ohio, specializing in colorectal surgery and returned to heavy drinking. Although he was able to recognize his problem of drinking and sought various treatments, it went in vain. He struggled for the next 17 years with alcohol which led to frequent conflicts with his wife while trying to hold together a medical practice to support his family and his drinking.

  How Bill Met Bob? Top

While Bill was able to maintain sobriety 6 months, he found a company in Ohio along with a couple of friends.[3] However, it did not flourish due to his past stories of drinking. He had almost relapsed after feeling dejected when he went near a bar to take a drink. However, Bill instead went to a public phone booth nearby and started making calls to find out another “alcoholic” like him to talk to. After a few calls, he contacted Dr. Bob Smith, a surgeon by profession. Dr. Bob had also attended the same spiritual group's meetings, whose Bill's sober friend was a part of. Bill was able to convince Dr. Bob to meet him but only for 15 min. Bill claimed that he had a “cure” for alcoholism and Dr. Bob agreed to meet him only on insistence of his wife. Although Dr. Bob went inside a room to have a quick talk with Bill, they ended up talking for 5 h.

  The New Beginning Top

Bill stayed in Ohio for 3 more months and worked with Dr. Bob to help other people taking excessive alcohol to become sober. Bob could not stay completely abstinent and had multiple lapses until June 10, 1935, which became the founding date of AA. Since this day, Bob and Bill have been sober and were in fellowship to help other people stay abstinent. Through their repeated efforts, other people joined them, and the groups started growing larger and larger. Bob Smith was called the “Prince of Twelfth Steppers” by Wilson because he helped more than 5000 alcoholics before his death. He was able to stay sober from June 10, 1935, until his death in 1950 from colon cancer.

The mission started by Bill and Bob attracted many people in their cause. It helped to see many individuals with alcohol use problems recover, and consequently helps the families. AA has over time grown to include 2 million members in more than 160 countries.[5] The essence of 12-step programs remains one alcoholic or addict helping another. The program offers different kinds of approach in helping individuals to quit alcohol, one that is quite different from the medical model of treatment. Yet, its success can be construed in terms of wide acceptance of the model in public discourse and acknowledgment of the positive effects by the medical profession and research endeavors. Who could have fathomed then that one key meeting between two alcoholics, one recovered and another recovering, could have such a lasting impact on the discourse of addiction treatment.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. 4th ed. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.; 2001.  Back to cited text no. 1
Gross M. Alcoholics Anonymous: Still sober after 75 years 1935. Am J Public Health 2010;100:2361-3.  Back to cited text no. 2
Bill's Story. Available from: http://www.steppingstones.org/billsstory.html. [Last cited on 2017 Feb 07].  Back to cited text no. 3
Ancestry of “Dr. Bob S”. Available from: http://www.wargs.com/other/smithrh. [Last cited on 2017 Feb 07].  Back to cited text no. 4
This is A.A. an Introduction to the A.A. Recovery Program; 2017. Available from: http://www.aa.org/pdf/products/p-1_thisisaa1.pdf. [Last accessed on 2017 Feb 07].  Back to cited text no. 5


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  In this article
Life of Bill
How Bill Met Bob?
Who was Bob Smith?
The New Beginning

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