Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

AA Takes Its First Steps

June 10, 1935

Bill Wilson, a stockbroker and a drunk from Brooklyn, N.Y., thought he had found the secret of kicking the bottle. But on a business trip to Akron, Ohio, in May he found himself outside a bar, tempted and desperate. In the past, he had fought the urge by talking to other alcoholics, who truly understood his struggle. Through a church group, he found local surgeon Robert Holbrook Smith.

Dr. Bob and Bill W., as Alcoholics Anonymous members know them, promised to keep each other sober, following Bill W.'s strategy: a simple set of principles — later refined into 12 steps — that would become the foundation of America's self-help culture. Alcoholics, he said, must admit they are powerless over their addiction. They must make amends to all those they have harmed. And they must submit to God—however they define the deity.

The advice did not immediately take. Dr. Bob went to Atlantic City, N.J., for a convention; several days later, he showed up at the Akron train station, smashed. On June 10, the dried-out but still jittery doctor was due in surgery. That morning, Bill W. gave Dr. Bob a bottle of beer—to steady his scalpel hand. The operation was a success. The beer was Dr. Bob's last. And the two men pledged that day to work to bring Bill W.'s principles to other alcoholics, one day at a time.