June 10th, 1935 – Dr. Robert Smith Takes His Last Drink!

Today-In-History

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sprang from The Oxford Group, a non-denominational movement modeled after first-century Christianity. Some members found the Group to help in maintaining sobriety. One such “Grouper”, as they were called, was Ebby Thacher, AA founder Bill Wilson’s former drinking buddy and his acknowledged sponsor. Following the evangelical bent of the Group, Thacher told Wilson that he had “got religion” and was sober, and that Wilson could do the same if he set aside objections to religion and instead formed a personal idea of God, “another power” or “higher power”.

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AA Founders Dr. Robert Smith and Bill Wilson.

Wilson felt with Thacher a “kinship of common suffering” and—while drunk—attended his first Group gathering. Within days, Wilson admitted himself to the Charles B. Towns Hospital, but not before drinking four beers on the way—the last time Wilson drank alcohol. Under the care of Dr. William Duncan Silkworth (an early benefactor of AA), Wilson’s detox included the deliriant belladonna. At the hospital in a state of despair, Wilson experienced a bright flash of light, which he felt to be God revealing himself.

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Robert Holbrook Smith (August 8th, 1879 – November 16th, 1950)

Following his hospital discharge Wilson joined the Oxford Group and recruited other alcoholics to the Group. Wilson’s early efforts to help others become sober were ineffective, prompting Dr. Silkworth to suggest that Wilson place less stress on religion and more on “the science” of treating alcoholism. Wilson’s first success came during a business trip to Akron, Ohio, where he was introduced to Dr. Robert Smith, a surgeon and Oxford Group member who was unable to stay sober. After thirty days of working with Wilson, Smith drank his last drink on June 10th, 1935, the date marked by AA for its anniversaries.

While Wilson and Smith credited their sobriety to working with alcoholics under the auspices of the Oxford Group, a Group associate pastor sermonized against Wilson and his alcoholic Groupers for forming a “secret, ashamed sub-group” engaged in “divergent works”. By 1937, Wilson separated from the Oxford Group. AA Historian Ernest Kurtz described the split:

…more and more, Bill discovered that new adherents could get sober by believing in each other and in the strength of this group. Men [no women were members yet] who had proven over and over again, by extremely painful experience, that they could not get sober on their own had somehow become more powerful when two or three of them worked on their common problem. This, then—whatever it was that occurred among them—was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves. They did not need the Oxford Group.

In 1955, Wilson acknowledged AA’s debt, saying “The Oxford Groupers had clearly shown us what to do. And just as importantly, we learned from them what not to do.” Among the Oxford Group practices that AA retained were informal gatherings, a “changed-life” developed through “stages”, and working with others for no material gain. AA’s analogs for these are meetings, “the steps”, and sponsorship. AA’s tradition of anonymity was a reaction to the publicity-seeking practices of the Oxford Group, as well as AA’s wish to not promote, Wilson said, “erratic public characters who through broken anonymity might get drunk and destroy confidence in us.”


 

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