Pioneers of Alcoholics Anonymous
The Story of Bill Wilson
William Griffith Wilson was born in East Dorset, Vermont, on November 26, 1895 to Gilman and Emily Griffith Wilson in the middle of a snow storm and behind the bar of his grandparents’ hotel. This inauspicious but curiously suggestive birth would produce the man who decades later both Time and Life magazines would honor as one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century.
Bill had a sister, Dorothy, who was four years younger than he. Bill’s otherwise happy childhood in rural Vermont was shattered when, at the age of 11, his parents divorced. This trauma was accompanied by what he felt was abandonment when his father moved to British Columbia and his mother to Boston where she studied osteopathic medicine and was one of the first females to receive a degree from Harvard University. It was around this time that Bill first experienced what became a series of depressions that he would experience throughout his life.
His maternal grandparents, Fayette and Ella Griffith, prominent in the small New England town, raised him and his younger sister, Dorothy. Fayette doted on his grandchildren. He was especially concerned with Bill whom he realized needed intellectual stimulation and challenges which he encouraged. These ranged from reading literature and teaching himself to play the violin, to the making of a boomerang after Grandfather Griffith told him that no one but native Australians could make and throw one. After a six-month effort, Bill proudly demonstrated to Fayette a bona fide working boomerang.
Bill’s confidence grew as a high-school student at the Burr and Burton School in nearby Manchester , Vermont where he emerged as a class leader and eventual senior-class president. But the unexpected death of a beloved girl he intended to marry sunk Bill into a depression so severe he was unable to graduate. Speaking about this loss years later, Bill wondered how he survived it.
In 1913, Bill’s life took an upward turn when he was introduced to Lois Burnham of Brooklyn Heights , New York , the daughter of a respected physician. Lois, who summered in Vermont with her parents and four siblings, was four years Bill’s senior. Despite this difference, the two were attracted to each other but would not become romantically involved for a few years. Bill eventually enrolled in Norwich University , a military college, which prepared him well for World War I. Bill left shortly before graduation to join Coast Artillery in 1917 and advanced through training in Plattsburg , New York , where he discovered an innate talent for leadership. That led to additional training at Fort Monroe , Virginia , and a commission as second lieutenant.
Shortly before Bill embarked for duty overseas, he married Lois in the Swedenborgen Church in Brooklyn Heights on January 24, 1918. Waiting in England for deployment to France, Bill’s regiment was bivouacked near Winchester , England , and Bill one afternoon visited that city’s great cathedral. While there, Bill had an ecstatic experience of an overwhelming presence of God which filled and reassured him as no other experience before had ever done. Upon walking through the cathedral’s cemetery, he saw to the tombstone of Thomas Thetcher who Bill thought might be an ancestor of his friend, Ebby Thatcher. He was so amazed by the epithet written there, Bill remembered it years later when writing his own story for the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. “Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier Who caught his death Drinking small cold beer. A good soldier is ne’er forgot Whether he dieth by musket Or by pot”
Although Bill did not see heavy fighting, he did distinguish himself in service. Upon discharge, he returned to Brooklyn eventually securing a position in a surety company and taking night courses in economics and law. Bill’s potential law career ended when intoxication prevented him from finishing his final exam. (The irony is that years later Bill, being mindful of AA traditions, declined an honorary law degree from Yale.)
Bill chose to work on Wall Street and became quite a success providing critical information about companies to brokerage houses. He was drinking at this time, often heavily, but the brokers were making so much money based on what Bill was filing, they tolerated it. However, towards the end of the decade Bill’s drinking worsened to the point where it alarmed his wife and business associates who eventually avoided him. When the market crashed in 1929, he knew times would get much harder.
In the 1920’s, Lois and Bill moved into the home of Lois’ parents, Dr. Clark and Matilda Burnham where, a few years later living in the house alone with Lois, Bill would descend into chronic and desperate alcoholism. Considered by himself and others to be hopeless, Bill was visited in November 1934 by Ebby T., an old friend who Bill knew to be a severe alcoholic but who was miraculously sober. Ebby told Bill that he had stopped drinking through his association with the Oxford Group, a spiritual fellowship, and that Bill also could get sober with the help of the group.
The Oxford Group was a spiritual fellowship popular in the early half of the 20th century. It had no membership, dues, paid leaders, creed or theology. Its appeal laid in the application of certain principles in daily living namely, honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Oxford Groupers, as they were called, had success with those trying to stop drinking such as Ebby. When he, an incessant drinker, was sober two months, he went to visit the worst alcoholic he knew to pass on his spiritual experience and its result. That alcoholic was Bill Wilson. They sat at the kitchen table in Brooklyn Heights (this table is now at Stepping Stones) on which Bill had placed gin and pineapple juice, but Ebby refused to imbibe. He had stopped drinking explaining, “I’ve got religion.”
Bill was resistant to Ebby’s spiritual program arguing the existence of God and certain religious concepts. But when an exasperated Ebby told Bill, “Why don’t you chose your own conception of God?” he could argue no longer and gradually opened to a larger notion of God, of a Power greater than himself. (It was Ebby’s statement, translated later in AA’s steps as, “God as we understood Him,” that has enabled those from all sorts of religious backgrounds and those without any to avail themselves of “this simple program.” AA is spiritual, not religious, and its member’s conception of God is personal and, at times, unique).
Although Bill’s drinking continued, Ebby’s visit opened an avenue of possibility of sobriety. Entering Towns Hospital in December 1934, Bill’s life was utterly changed by a transforming spiritual experience that resulted in his never needing to take another drink of alcohol for the rest of his life.
Bill was also aided by Towns psychiatrist William D. Silkworth who believed that alcoholism was a physical allergy to alcohol and not a moral malady. This allergy was triggered by consuming even a small amount of alcohol by some people that caused a compulsion to drink along with a mental obsession to do so. This concept was so new at the time that when Bill asked Dr. Silkworth to expand on it in the Doctor’s Opinion for the book Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Silkworth did so anonymously. It was only years later, when this theory gained acceptance, did he allow his name to be used.
When Bill left Towns Hospital , he was a man reborn. Fired with his “mountain top” experience, he searched the streets and bars of Brooklyn looking for others to help. However, despite his ardent efforts to help other alcoholics, his efforts were futile; no one was getting sober.
Six months into his own sobriety, Bill and a couple of friends found a small company in Akron, Ohio that was ripe for take over and would pull Bill and Lois out of the severe financial situation. It was not to be. The deal collapsed, probably on stories of Bill’s drinking, and Bill, dejected and distressed returned to the city’s Mayflower Hotel where he nearly drank again.
Tempted by the lure of the bar, Bill headed to the public phone booth instead and desperately sought another alcoholic, someone like himself to talk to. After a series of calls, Bill eventually contacted a Dr. Robert H. Smith, an Akron surgeon, and some time attendee at Oxford Group meetings. Agreeing to the meeting only to appease Anne, his wife, Dr. Bob was determined to spend no more than 15 minutes with this man who had a “cure” for alcoholism. The two men went into a room for what Bob thought would be a quick talk, but he was mistaken. They finally stopped talking about five hours later.
Bill stayed in Ohio three months working with Bob to help get other men sober. Bob drank once again a couple of weeks later after coming home from a medical conference in New Jersey . The date of Dr. Bob’s last drink is June 10, 1935 — founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous, the day there were two sober people in fellowship, the day Dr. Bob drank for the last time.
Through the tireless efforts of the two men, others joined them and the small group of sober alcoholics grew person by person, group by group. (The story of AA can be read in publications such as AA Comes Of Age, available through Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. It is a rich story of a fascinating history.)
Bill returned to Brooklyn Heights and his work there took hold and the movement grew. In the early days, alcoholics participated in the Oxford Group as their means of fellowship and growth. In many cases, alcoholics comprised most of the membership in some groups. In 1937, the growing awareness that an organization of alcoholics-only was needed resulted in the official creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, a fellowship of men and women who share their hope and strength with each other to solve their common problem and to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.
The cornerstone of AA is the Twelve Steps, a spiritual program of recovery, written by Bill who expanded it from the basic six tenants of the Oxford Group. Bill would later write the Twelve Traditions, a guide to fellowship members on how to avoid the pitfalls to which other groups had succumbed. The traditions are to the groups of AA as the steps are to the individual and are designed to keep AA as a whole vibrant and focused on “our primary purpose.”
Bill was 40 years old when he stopped drinking. He would remain sober for the remaining 35 years of his life, spending most of his considerable energy and mental acumen in helping create one of the greatest social organizations ever known, Alcoholics Anonymous. He also would be the major writer of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, (AKA The Big Book), after which the group would name itself as well as Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, in addition to numerous articles and pamphlets.
In January 1971, Bill was flown in a private jet to the Miami Heart Institute in hopes of finding treatment for his severe emphysema. He is said to have been in good spirits during the flight but much weakened. Bill never received treatment; he died the day he arrived — January 24th, on his and Lois’ wedding anniversary. They had been married 53 years.
Bill’s last address to the huge annual anniversary party held in his honor in New York City two months before he died was delivered by Lois since Bill was very ill and unable to attend. His message was based on an Arabian salutation –: “I salute you, and I thank you for your lives.” For those in the audience, the sentiment was undoubtedly mutual.
© The Stepping Stones Foundation
WOMEN OF THE BIG BOOK
Hi, my name is Nancy and I’m an alcoholic from Galt, California.
I was honored to participate in this incredible event. I’ve been interested in the history of our program since May 24, 1972.
The stories in the Big Book tell a lot of AA history. Plus they have had a huge impact on my own sobriety. I can identify with all of them.
Although the stories in all four editions are important, I chose seven stories from the first and second editions because they were our women pioneers.
A Feminine Victory—Florence Rankin
New York City—Original Manuscript, page 217 in the 1st edition
Florence was the first woman to get sober in AA, even for a short time. She came to AA in New York in March of 1937. She had several slips, but was sober over a year when she wrote her story for the Big Book.
Photo of Florence Rankin
Florence wrote, “When the idea was first presented to me that I was an alcoholic, my mind simply refused to accept it. Horrors! How disgraceful! What humiliation! How preposterous!” “But I have reached the source of help. I have learned to recognize and acknowledge the underlying cause of my disease; selfishness, self-pity and resentment.”
It must have been difficult for Florence being the only woman in AA. She prayed for inspiration to tell her story in a manner that would give other women courage to seek the help that she had been given. She was the ex-wife of a man Bill Wilson had known on Wall Street. She thought the cause of her drinking would be removed when she and her husband were divorced.
She wrote, “Oh, I had them all down—letter perfect—all the excuses, reasons and justifications. What I did not know was that I was being destroyed by selfishness, self-pity and resentment.” But it was Florence’s ex-husband who took Lois Wilson to visit her at Bellevue.
Bill and Lois got her out of Bellevue and she stayed in their home for a time. After she left their home she stayed with other members of the fellowship.
Florence wrote, “I had been taught to realize there is a God and to “love” him. But though I had been taught all these things I had never learned them.”
“Bill put it to me this way; ‘You admit you’ve made a mess of things trying to run them your way. Are you willing to give up? Are you willing to say: “Here it is God, all mixed up. I don’t know how to un-mix it. I’ll leave it to you!’”
At one point she was all alone and felt like drinking, she read the Bible and prayed, “But I didn’t say “I must not take that drink because I owe it to so and so not to.” I didn’t say “I won’t take that drink because I’m strong enough to resist temptation.” I didn’t say “I must not” or “I will not” at all.
I simply prayed and read and in half an hour I got up and was absolutely free of the urge for a drink. This too shall pass.
“But I know absolutely that the minute I close my channels with sorrow for myself, or being hurt by, or resentful toward anyone, I am in horrible danger.”
“I know that my victory is none of my human doing. I know that I must keep myself worthy of Devine help. And the glorious thing is this: I am free, I am happy, and perhaps I am going to have the blessed opportunity of “passing it on.” I say in all reverence—Amen.”
In part, due to Florence having been sober more than a year, “One Hundred Men” was discarded as the name for the Big Book. She spoke up and said, “What about me?” “I’m a woman!”
She moved to Washington, D.C. and tried to help Fitz Mayo (whose story in the Big Book is “Our Southern Friend”), who after sobering up in New York started AA in Washington, D.C. She married an alcoholic she met there, who unfortunately did not get sober.
Sadly Florence started drinking again and disappeared. Fitz Mayo found her in the morgue. She had committed suicide.
Despite her relapse and death from alcoholism, Florence helped pave the way for the many women who followed. She was in Washington by the time Marty Mann, the next woman to arrive in AA in New York, entered the program. (Marty’s story is “Women Suffer Too”) Marty only met her once or twice, but Florence’s story in the Big Book no doubt encouraged Marty.
The Keys of the Kingdom—Sylvia Kauffmann
Chicago, IL—page 304 in 2nd and 3rd editions and page 268 in the 4th
This worldly lady helped to develop AA in Chicago and thus passed her keys to many. According to member list index cards kept by the Chicago group, Sylvia’s date of sobriety was September 13, 1939.
Because of slips by Marty Mann, Sylvia may have been the first woman to achieve long-term sobriety.
Photo of Sylvia Kauffmann
Sylvia was raised in a good environment with loving and conscientious parents and given every advantage: the best schools, summer camps, resort vacations and travel. She had her first drink at sixteen and loved what it did for her.
She was from the roaring ’20s—that age of the flapper and the “It” girl. She married at twenty, had two children, and was divorced at twenty-three. This gave her a good excuse to drink. By twenty-five she had developed into an alcoholic. Sylvia said, “Drink did something for me or to me that was different from the way it affected others.”
She began making the rounds of the doctors in the hope that one of them might find a cure for her accumulating ailments, preferably something that could be removed surgically.
Of course all they found was an unstable woman, undisciplined, poorly adjusted and filled with nameless fears. Most of the doctors prescribed sedatives and advised rest and moderation. Whatever that is.
Between the ages of twenty-five and thirty she tried everything. She moved to Chicago thinking a new environment would help. She tried all sorts of things to control her drinking: the beer diet, the wine diet, timing, measuring, and spacing of drinks. She tried them mixed, unmixed, drinking only when gay, or only when depressed. Nothing worked.
The next three years saw Sylvia in sanitariums, once in a ten-day coma from which she very nearly died. She wanted to die, but had lost the courage to try. She remarked, “I was thirty-three years old and my life was spent.” “This was drinking in sheer desperation, alone and locked behind my own door.”
“My fear fed a growing conviction that before long it would be necessary for me to be put away in some institution.” She felt shame and fear, with no complete escape any longer except oblivion.
There was one doctor who did not give up on her. Like all doctors of his day, had been taught that the alcoholic was incurable and should be ignored. With the alcoholic, they could only give temporary relief and in the last stages not even that! Alcoholics were a waste of the doctors’ time and the patients’ money.
Nevertheless, there were a few doctors who saw alcoholism as a disease and felt that the alcoholic was a victim of something over which he had no control. Sylvia’s doctor tried everything he could think of, including having her go to mass every morning at six a.m., and performing menial labor for his charity patients. This doctor apparently had the intuitive knowledge that spirituality and helping others might be the answer.
In 1939 this doctor heard of the book Alcoholics Anonymous and wrote to New York for a copy. After reading it he tucked it under his arm and called on Sylvia. That visit marked the turning point of her life.
He must have studied the book carefully because he took its advice. The doctor explained that alcohol was no respecter of sex or background, but that most of the alcoholics he had encountered had better than average minds and abilities…of course we do! He also gave her the cold, hard facts about her condition, and that she would either die of acute alcoholism, develop a wet brain, or have to be put away permanently.
Then he told her of a handful of people in Akron and New York who seemed to have worked out a technique for arresting their alcoholism. He asked her to read the book.
Sylvia remarked, “I stayed up all night reading that book. For me it was a wonderful experience. It explained so much I had not understood about myself and, best of all it promised recovery if I would do a few simple things and be willing to have the desire to drink removed.
Here was hope. Maybe I could find my way out of this agonizing existence. Perhaps I could find freedom and peace and be able once again to call my soul my own”
Her doctor asked her to talk with a man who was experiencing success by using this plan. This was Earl Treat (his story in the Big Book was, “He Sold Himself Short”). Earl was the “Mr. T.” to whom she refers on page 309.
Sylvia said, “I was ready and willing to go into the interior of the African jungles, if that was what it took, for me to find what these people had. They seemed to have all the ingredients for successful living: philosophy, faith, a sense of humor, (they could laugh at themselves)—and most especially appreciation and sympathetic understanding for their fellow man.
Earl suggested she visit Akron. According to Bill Wilson, she got off to a slow start there, and may also have been a pill addict. She took a lot of “little white pills” which she claimed were saccharin, and no one could understand why she was so rubber-legged. She said, “It had been many years since I had not relied on some artificial crutch, either alcohol or sedatives.”
Sylvia stayed two weeks with Clarence and Dorothy Snyder in Cleveland. (Clarence Snyder’s story in the Big Book is “The Home Brewmeister). She met Dr. Bob, who brought other AA men to meet her. Dorothy Snyder said that the men “were only too willing to talk to her after they saw her.” Sylvia was a glamorous divorcee, extremely good looking, and rich. But these attractions probably did not help her with the wives of the alcoholics, who were known on occasion to run women out.
After meeting Dr. Bob she wanted to move to Akron, but this caused great concern, since her presence threatened to disrupt the whole group. Even Dr. Bob was uncomfortable with her being there. She went back to Chicago where she finally got sober. She worked closely with Earl Treat.
Her personal secretary, Grace Cultice, became the first secretary at the Intergroup office in Chicago, the first in the country. By the latter part of September 1939 they had a nucleus of six and held their first official group meeting.
“By 1955 our membership in the Chicago area alone had grown from six members to six thousand. Now, there were many to carry on the work. The group did not need us in the same degree as it had earlier. But our need for the group had not diminished.”
Sylvia leaves us with, “Where we used to run from responsibility, we find ourselves accepting it with gratitude that we can successfully shoulder it.”
“There is no more “aloneness,” with that awful ache, so deep in the heart of every alcoholic that nothing, before, could ever reach it. That ache is gone and never need return again.”
“We say to the new person, “Don’t take our word for it. Instead, try it for yourself. Only then can you be sure you have latched on to a design for living that can really work for you.”
“Now there is a sense of belonging, of being wanted and needed and loved.In return for a bottle and a hangover, we have been given the Keys of the Kingdom.
From Farm to City—Ethel Macy
Akron, Ohio—page 261 in the 2nd and 3rd editions
She tells how AA works when the going is rough. A pioneer woman member of AA’s first Group.
Ethel’s date of sobriety was May 8, 1941. She was the first woman to get sober in Akron. She came from a very poor family, the oldest in a family of seven. Her father was an alcoholic.
They moved from the country to the city when she was at an age where girls want nice things and to be like the other girls at school. She felt the others were making fun of her, and feared that she wasn’t dressed as well as the rest.
At the age of sixteen she was invited to spend the summer with an aunt in Liberty, Indiana. Her aunt told her she could have boy friends visit, but that she must stay away from one boy, Russ Macy, (his name was Roscoe, but he was called Rollo or Russ). He came from a fine family but drank too much.
Four months later, she married him, even though he drank and he was seven years her senior. She was sure his family disapproved of her because she was from the wrong side of the tracks.
They had two daughters, but about seven or eight years after they were married his drinking became so bad that she took her children and went home.
Ethel said, “I was still bitter because I felt that drink had completely ruined my childhood and my married life, and I hated everything pertaining to it. I was about twenty-five then, and I had never touched a drop.” She didn’t see Russ or hear from him for a year.
At the end of a year the children received a card from their father, which she kept and cherished. It said “Tell Mommy I still love her.”
Soon Russ himself arrived. She welcomed him with open arms, though he had little but the clothes on his back. He told her he would never drink again and she believed him.
He got a job and went back to work, and stayed “dry” for thirteen years. By the end of the thirteen years their older daughter was married and she and her husband were living with them and the other daughter was in her last year of high school. Then one night their son-in-law and Russ went to a prizefight. Russ came home drunk—crawling on his hands and knees up the stairs.
She told him “The children are raised, and if this is the way you want it, this is the way we’ll have it. Where you go I’ll go, and what you drink I’ll drink.” And thus Ethyl started drinking.
They went on vacations in the car, drinking all the way. Ethyl did the driving. One Sunday afternoon she got picked up for drunk driving and they both were thrown in jail.
Ethel got indignant and told Russ, “Can you imagine them giving us that jail fare? They brought a pitcher of coffee and a sandwich wrapped up for me.” Russ told her, “That wasn’t jail fare, they didn’t’ give me anything to eat.”
On another occasion she got drunk and set the house on fire so they wouldn’t have to paint it.
Ethel got upset with the religious neighbors down the street. “They used a sound truck that would stop out in front of our house. They’d sit out there and play hymns and I’d be lying in there with a terrific hangover. If I’d had a gun, I’d shot the horns right off the thing because it made me raving mad.”
In 1940 they read something about AA in the newspaper. She talked about it and thought there might come a time when they needed it. A man in the bar told her, “They roll on the floor and holler and pull their hair.” Well, I’m nuts enough now” she said to him and her hope died.
She was having a drink in a barroom one day, and told the woman behind the bar she wished she never had to take another drink. Ethel told her, she was licked and wanted help. “I thought, No matter how crazy they are I’ll do anything they say to do.”
She was told to talk to Jack, the owner of the place, whom they had always tried to buy a drink, but who always refused saying he couldn’t handle alcohol. (This may have been John Munier, one of the early Cleveland members.)
Finally, one morning Ethel got in the car and cried all the way to that bar and told them she was licked and wanted help. But Jack was out and his wife
said she would send him as soon as he returned. He soon arrived with two cans of beer one for Ethel and one for Russ. That was their last drink.
Men from AA started coming to the house the next day, telling their stories, and Jack brought them the Saturday Evening Post story about AA. He told them the whole thing was based on the Sermon on the Mount and asked if they had a Bible.
Coming off a drunk it was hard to read the small print of their little Testament that their bulldog had chewed up, but Russ said, “Mother, if this tells us how to do it, you’ll have to read it.” It was important to do the things we were told.” Paul Stanley (his story is Truth Freed Me in the 1st Edition) visited and stressed that they read the Big Book.
So many nicely dressed people were coming to our house in nice cars that Ethyl told Russ: “I suppose the neighbors say, ‘Now those old fools must have up and died, but where’s the hearse?'”
Jack took them to a meeting at the King School on Wednesday night and introduced Ethyl to some of the wives. One was Anabelle Gillam, the wife of Wally Gillam (his story was “Fired Again” in the 1st edition). Annabelle was told to take her under her wing.
Ethyl never forgot how Annabelle “sort of curled up her nose and said, ‘They tell me you drink too.'” Ethyl often thought how that would turn some people away, but she replied: “Why sure, that’s what I’m here for.”
Women had a harder time being accepted in Akron than they did in New York. Perhaps the reason Ethel was accepted is that Russ joined at the same time. Also Ethel weighed 300 pounds, and the wives probably did not consider her a threat. (Her husband was about half her weight and only about 5’2″.)
Photo of Dr. Bob and Anne
Ethel gave a lot of credit to Dr. Bob and Anne for their recovery. The Smiths spent at least an evening a week at the Macy’s home, and Russ thought Dr. Bob thoroughly enjoyed these visits.
She and Russ worked as a team and were very active from the beginning. Ethel started what may have been the first women’s AA group.
Russ died on Monday, September 4, 1944 and was buried on Friday. AAs had invited Ethel to dinner the following Sunday. But first Ethel went to talk to women at St. Thomas Hospital. She recalled, “I sat down on the side of one of their beds, and I started to weep, I couldn’t stop, and I was so startled, and I apologized again and again for it. And that woman told me long after that was the surest proof that this program could work. If on Sunday, I could be there trying to think of something that would help her with this problem, then we must have something that could work.”
After Russ’ death, Ethel’s whole life was AA and she sponsored many women.
In Ethel’s parting words, “AA has changed, but the root of it hasn’t. We are older in AA, and we’re older in years. It’s only natural that we don’t have the capacity to change, but we ought not to criticize those who have.”
Ethel Macy died on April 9, 1963.
A Flower of the South—Esther Elizardi
Houston, TX—page 343 in the 2nd edition, and page 384 in the 3rd edition
Esther’s date of sobriety was May 16, 1941.
Photo of Esther Elizardi
She was a very attractive woman, full of pep. She was raised in New Orleans (New Or-linz) where social drinking was acceptable. At home they always had wine with dinner and cordials after dinner. She attended cocktail parties, dances and nightclubs.
The first time she realized what alcohol could do for her was her own wedding. She was so afraid that everything wouldn’t be perfect that she became very nervous and “was really in a terrific state” when her father said “Miss Esther is about to faint. Get her something to drink.”
Esther wrote, “Emma, the servant came back with a water glass full of bourbon and made me drink it down. The bourbon hit as I started down the aisle. “I walked down that aisle just like May West in her prime. I wanted to do it all over again”.
From that day on she used alcohol to ease social situations and didn’t know when she crossed over the line into alcoholism.
She divorced her husband after seven years and went home to her parents, but couldn’t stand living with them and went back to Texas and remarried her ex-husband. Then they moved to Oklahoma. In Esther’s words, “That was when all the boys and Esther got drunk and the wives didn’t.”
The drinking got worse; her husband would come home day after day to find her passed out. She was sent to a mental hospital where they kept her seventeen days.
When they moved to Houston the drinking continued. She went out one day to walk her cocker spaniel. A patrol car passed and saw her staggering and stopped to take her home, but she got “sassy” with him so he took the dog home and took poor Esther to jail.
Esther said, “I don’t like being fenced in, and with those bars you don’t get hotel service.” “I remembered going back on the bunk and crying my eyes out. I think that is when I hit bottom.”
She was only in there a few hours. When her husband came to get her with look of disgust on his face, she was complaining about being in jail and was going to sue the city for what they had done to her. He told her, “Remember Esther, you’re in jail and not at home.”
He had read a story about AA in the Saturday Evening Post a few weeks before. He finally showed it to her with the ultimatum “If you will try this thing, I’ll go along with you. If you don’t, you will have to go home. I cannot sit by and watch you destroy yourself!”
She wrote to the GSO office in New York. She said, “I was shaking so, I asked my husband to write the letter for me, but he said no. This was something I had to do all by myself.” Within a week a letter came back with AA literature. It was the routine letter they sent to everyone, but with it was a hand-written letter from Ruth Hock, AA’s non-alcoholic secretary.
Photo of Ruth Hock
That personal touch did a lot to help Esther. The letter stated that this man would see her—there weren’t any women. That man was in the hospital so she drank five more days before coming to AA the following week. She called it her spill into AA.
Esther was full of gratitude to her husband, and to AA members who had paved the way for her.
During her second year in AA they were transferred to Dallas, and started an AA group there in 1943. The phone number in Dallas Ruth Hock had given her had been disconnected when she arrived. But unfazed, she started seeking out other alcoholics to Twelve Step.
She said, “I threw myself into Twelve Step work, and what I feared would be a calamity turned out to be the most blessed of blessings.
I know that I must work at it as long as I live; I know that it’s only by working at it that I can stay sober and have a happy life. It is an endless career. It is a way of life that pays as it goes every step of the way in compensations that have been wonderfully rich and rewarding.”
Esther ended her story with, “Dr. Bob said, “Love and service keep us dry,” and Bill says, “Always we must remember that our first duty is face-to-face help for the alcoholic who still suffers.” Dr. Bob tells about keeping it simple and not to louse it up.…
I feel there is no situation too difficult, none too desperate, no unhappiness too great to be overcome in this great fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.”
Esther had lived in Dallas from 1927 to 1932 and, according to a letter she wrote to New York dated March 29, 1943, “This is where I had been so sick for five years. Where I started trying out all the doctors, hospitals and cures (the Sanitarium three times) so I’ve lots to do. First off, four doctors to call on and let them look over ‘exhibit A’ (me)!
My minister (Episcopal) has two prospects for us. He tried so hard to help me for years, and had never heard of AA.” She added “Hope I have much AA to report in my next letter. You’ll be hearing from me!” They did indeed.
A week later, April 5, she wrote “Dear Bobbie [Margaret R. Burger, Bill’s secretary at the time]: The new Dallas Group met for their first time last night! Three inactive alkies, one active from Detroit and two non-alcoholics who brought the active one.” The group met for some time in Esther’s home.
In her story Esther said, “I wish I could tell you how and why AA works, but I don’t know. I only know that it does—if you desire it with your whole heart and without reservation.”
Esther died on June 3, 1960, with slightly more than 19 years of sobriety. Her copy of the Big Book, which is signed by Bill Wilson, is on display in the Dallas Central Office.
Stars Don’t Fall—Countess Felicia Gizycka
(Guh-zeek-kuh) New York City—page 401 in the 2nd edition and page 400 in the 3rd edition
Felicia entered AA in 1943, but had several relapses her first year. Her date of sobriety was 1944. She was probably the sixth woman to get sober in New York.
Photo of Countess Felicia Gizycka
Marty Mann was her sponsor. Bill Wilson called Marty and said “I have a dame down here whose name I can’t pronounce. I don’t know what to do with her.”
Felicia was born in 1905, in the family castle in pre-war Austrian territory, the daughter of Count Josef Gizycka and Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson, editor of the Washington Times. Cissy was a cousin of Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune. Her mother brought Felicia to America as an infant, and she never saw her father again.
Felicia believed her alcoholic problem began long before she drank and sought several escapes. Her personality from the time she could remember anything, was “the perfect set-up for an alcoholic career.”
She was always out of step with the world, her family, and with people in general. She lived in a dream world.
Until her early thirties, when her drinking became a problem, she lived in large houses, with servants and all the luxuries that she could possibly want. Prohibition meant nothing. Her family always bought the best, and the embassies were flowing. But she never felt she belonged.
She wrote, “A drink never gave me a normal, pleasant glow. Instead it was like a tap on the head with a small mallet. Five or six drinks and I was terrific. Men danced with me at parties. I was full of careless chatter. I was so amusing! I had friends.”
Felicia stated, “I knew in my heart that I was unfit for the very things I wanted most, a happy marriage, security, a home and love.”
She was married three times, first to Drew Pearson in 1925, (the newspaperman she mentions on page 402). She divorced him three years later. Does anyone other than me remember Drew Pearson?
Photo of Drew Pearson
She met him again when she had been sober ten years and he told her he had always felt guilty because she became an alcoholic after their divorce. She was able to explain that she would have become an alcoholic anyway, that she had been a sick person, unfit for marriage.
She married Dudley de Lavigne in 1934, (the husband mentioned on page 493), but was again divorced less than a year later. They both drank. She used her venomous tongue and he used his fists.”
Her third husband was John Kennedy Magruder, whom she married in 1958 and then divorced in 1964.
Through each of her marriages and through several geographic cures in Europe, her drinking became more degrading.
She wrote, “Imagine my surprise when I came to, in Europe, and discovered I had brought myself along!” “I began, here and now, to fear the answer to the question—what is the matter with me?”
By 1943 she had moved to New York and was living a Bohemian life in the Village. “The horrors of increasing hangovers occupied the entire day along with nausea, dry heaves, the rocking bed, and the nightmare-filled mind.” “I did not know that I had no power over alcohol, that I, alone and unaided, could not stop.”
Felicia remarked, “I was not beautiful or good, as I had yearned to be. I was fat, bloated, dirty and unkempt. I was covered in bruises from ‘running into doors.’ I wore a man’s raincoat, turned inside out. My tweed suit, once a very good one, was shapeless and baggy with bare places worn in the elbows from leaning on the bar.” “I wanted to die.”
Felicia had the good fortune to find a new analyst, Dr. Ruth Fox. She said, “I think now that a God, in whom I did not believe, was looking after me. Perhaps it was He who sent my analyst to a psychiatrist’s meeting at which Bill Wilson spoke.”
Dr. Fox told her about AA and asked her to read the Big Book. She finally encouraged Felicia to go to the AA Foundation office, which was down in the Wall Street district of New York, and talk to Bill Wilson.
Photo of Dr. Ruth Fox
In Felicia’s words, “Bill was tall, grey haired, with the kind of asymmetrical good looks and pleasant easy manner that inspire confidence in the shaken and afraid. He was well dressed; he was easy going. I could see he wasn’t a quack or a fanatic.
He said to me, gently and simply, “Do you think that you are one of us?” Bill arranged for her to meet Marty Mann.” “I thought, Aha! He’s passing the buck. Now comes the questionnaire.”
“An alcoholic cannot accept the news that he’s an alcoholic unless there is a meaningful explanation given, and an offer of help, such as you get in AA.” “AA had to stop my drinking first. Then I was able to do something about me.”
Felicia recalled that Marty was late, “I felt like a gangster’s moll about to be interviewed by the Salvation Army.” The woman who answered the door at Marty’s apartment (page 413) was Marty’s longtime companion, Priscilla Peck, a very glamorous art director at Vogue magazine.
Photo of Priscilla Peck
Photo of Vogue Magazine
Felicia speaks of Priscilla on page 414. It was Marty and Priscilla who took her to her first meeting. In those days there was only one big meeting a week in New York.
Priscilla assigned Felicia to look after Anne, a rowdy newcomer who’s idea of fun was to hit sailors and insult cops. She was so busy keeping Anne out of trouble, and so scared Anne would swing on her, that she had her last two drinks that night.
In her first year Felicia said, I kicked Priscilla in the shins, got the lock changed on the desk in the AA Club, because as secretary, I didn’t want the Intergroup secretary “interfering,” and took an older woman member out to lunch for the express purpose of informing her that she was “a phony.”
She was a talented writer and—with Marty and Priscilla—helped start the AA Grapevine.
Felicia had sunk low, but had not lost everything, and was one of the reasons they started to talk about “high bottom” drunks.
She concluded her story with, “AA taught me how not to drink. And also, on the twenty-four hour plan, it taught me how to live.”
She wrote an update of her story for the November 1967 Grapevine. It was signed “F. M., New Canaan, Connecticut.” In it she said she was disappointed to learn that her story would be in the section labeled “They Stopped in Time.” She thought she had sunk pretty low.
Photo of 1967 Grapevine
Felicia died on February 26, 1999, at the age of 92, a few months after giving an extensive interview about her friend Marty Mann to Marty’s biographers.
The Independent Blonde—Nancy Flynn
New York City—page 532 in the 2nd edition
Nancy came to AA in June 1945, when she was 39 years old. She did not write her own story, which was written by some writers in AA, and she claims she didn’t even know it was in the Big Book.
She left home at fourteen. Her mother had died when she was three, her father remarried when she was fourteen, and her stepmother kicked her out.
Nancy said, “When you’re thrown out, you don’t feel like you’re anything. You know something’s got to be wrong with you or they wouldn’t have thrown you out. And they tell me that, psychologically, I felt abandoned by my mother.”
“All my life I had blamed everything that ever happened to me on someone else, and I usually could find someone.” I thought if I left my husband, things would be different.” This seems to be a common thread with alcoholics like me.
“I never thought about changing myself, I always thought about changing people, or changing places.”
She had made a few geographic “cures,” but they didn’t work. “When they wanted to close up the bar, they announced that if anybody was missing his companion, she was in the ladies’ room, passed out. That was me, in my brand new environment, with the right people!” She kept quitting jobs, not having the courage to wait to be fired.
Nancy wrote, “I had heard about AA about a year before I came in, but I thought it was some organization that helped you out financially, and I was always too independent for that. But on June 1, 1945, I had lost all of that kind of independence.”
Her contact with AA was at the clubhouse on Ninth Avenue and 41st Street. Nancy said, “I got someone on the telephone, and I told her I was in trouble and asked what I should do? The girl asked me if I could walk. And I said to myself, “My God, how understanding! Somebody who knows that you couldn’t walk and why you couldn’t walk!” The girl said, “Well, the only reason I ask is, if you can’t, we’ll come over to you.” And I reared up in all my arrogance and I said, “You’ll never come to me, but I’ll go to you!” It took me until four o’clock that day to get there.”
She expected to meet a bunch of bums, so did not get dressed up because she didn’t want to look better than everybody else. When she arrived, Park Avenue types were there. She said, “I was so welcome. It was the first time I felt welcome.” “I don’t know who spoke first, last, or what, but someone got up and said he had been in Bellevue thirty-five times. I thought, “Oh, my God! I’ll look like St. Cecelia here!”
One day a call came in to the Clubhouse for someone to go out and do a Twelve Step job. And they looked at me and said, “How long are you in?” and I said, “A week or so.” And they said, “Oh, you can’t go. You have to be sober three months.”
And then I realized that here I had spent all my life afraid that people were trying to get something out of me, and I had nothing to give!” “I had to wait
until these people gave it to me so that I could go out and give it away.”
Photo of Countess Felicia Gizycka
She was impressed on coming to AA to meet a countess (Felicia Gizycka, from Stars Don’t Fall.) At that time Nancy had a little beauty shop and often gave permanents to members of AA—those who could afford to pay her and those who could not.
She and another young woman, perhaps Marty Mann, were often asked to go to hospitals and drying-out places frequented by the wealthy because they were younger and “presentable.” They bought little hats with flowers on them, and wore little black dresses and pearls on these occasions.
Once they went to the apartment of a famous actress, and she told them such wonderful stories, they forgot why they were there. “We didn’t have the nerve to tell her that she was a drunk. Later she did get sober.”
“I was so eager to give what I had,” she said “I went right from the First Step to the last Step. For me it was just wonderful. I got in with people and I cared for somebody.
You see, I had never cared for anybody, not even myself. When you care for somebody, you begin to heal yourself. You don’t even know it.”
Nancy said everyone knew each other in AA then because they were all in one clubhouse. She often went to Dr. Silkworth for advice. “If we were in trouble, we’d go to Dr. Silkworth. If we were in a situation and we didn’t know how to get out of it or were afraid we might get drunk, we could talk it over with him.
He was a very simple, wonderful man. He said to me once, ‘The day that you can sit down and just be honest with yourself in this situation, you will know what to do.’ That was the kind of a man he was.”
Photo of Dr. Silkworth
Nancy went to the clubhouse every day from eleven o’clock in the morning when they opened until they closed at night. It was the only place she felt safe.
Nancy ended her story with, “The more I worry about me loving you, and the less I worry about you loving me, the happier I’ll be.”
“I learned how to have self-respect through work that AA gave me to do. I learned how to be a friend. I learned how to go out and help other people—there was nowhere else I could have done that.
I have learned that the more I give, the more I will have, the more I learn to give, the more I learn to live.”
For the first five years, she did nothing but go to AA. She didn’t know what else to do. For fifteen years she attended a women’s meeting that Marty Mann started in the home of a woman whose husband was an alcoholic. It was on 58th Street in midtown Manhattan.
Marty wanted to hire her as a speaker for the National Council on Alcoholism, but she declined. Nancy is a good example of what people can accomplish after they get sober.
She went to high school in her fifties and went to college when she was seventy. She studied behavioral science. She went to college for nine and a half years and graduated cum laude. (loudy)
Photo of Marty Mann with Book
When she arrived at AA she didn’t believe in God and didn’t want to hear anything about it. But she began searching. Later she became a Quaker and taught English to migrant workers.
She lived in Pennsylvania, and spoke at the 2000 AA International Convention in Minneapolis. She passed away on April 16, 2005 with 57 years of sobriety.
Freedom from Bondage—Wynn Corum Laws
Ventura, California—page 553 in the 2nd edition and page 544 in the 3rd and 4th editions
Young when she joined, this AA believes her serious drinking was the result of even deeper defects. She tells here how she was set free.
Photos of Young Wynn Laws
Wynn joined AA in California in 1947 at age thirty-three. She was described by the novelist, Carolyn See, one of her several step children, as “tall, and with a face that was astonishing in its beauty. She had “translucent skin with a tiny dusting of freckles, Audrey Hepburn cheekbones, bright red hair, and turquoise eyes.” She was a “knockout.”
She believed that her alcoholism was a symptom of a deeper trouble, and that her mental and emotional difficulties began many years before she began to drink. But AA taught her that she was the result of the way she reacted to what happened to her as a child. She learned she could change this reaction pattern and match calamity with serenity.
She was born in Florida and, like Bill Wilson before her, her parents separated when she was a child, and she was sent to live with her grand-
parents in the Midwest. (This common childhood experience may have been one of the reasons for the reported close friendship she had with Bill Wilson.)
She reports feeling “Restlessness, anxiety, fear and insecurity. The only kind of security I knew anything about at that time was material security and I decided that all these feelings would vanish immediately if I only had a lot of money.”
She married and divorced four times before finding AA. She said, “I didn’t have the courage to love; I was not even sure I had the capacity.” The first time she married for financial security; her second husband was a prominent bandleader and she sang with his band; her third husband was an Army Captain she married during World War II; her fourth husband was a widower with several children.
One AA friend quipped when first hearing Wynn’s story, that she had always been a cinch for the program, for she had always been interested in mankind, but was just taking them one man at a time.
Wynn stated, “There had been no emotional maturity at all. I realize now that this phase of my development had been arrested by my obsession with self. I was immersed in self-pity and resentment.”
“My remorse and shame and humiliation when I was sober were almost unbearable.” “As soon as my day was finished, I could drink myself into oblivion.” “I knew it didn’t make any difference where I started, the inevitable end would be skid row.”
Wynn wrote, “I attended my first AA meeting on July 25, 1947. I take no sedation or narcotics, for this program is to me one of complete sobriety and I no longer need to escape reality.” “There is just one good drunk in every alcoholic’s life, and that’s the one that brings us into AA.”
“I believe too that it is equally impossible to practice these principles to the best of our ability, a day at a time, and still drink, for I don’t think the two things are compatible. A willingness to believe is enough for a beginning.”
Photo of Wynn Laws Middle Age
When she wrote her story, she had been in AA eight years and her life had changed dramatically. She had not had a drink since her first meeting, and had not only found a way to live without having a drink, but a way to live without wanting a drink.
Wynn gave us precious gems—“Rationalization is giving a socially acceptable reason for socially unacceptable behavior, and socially unacceptable behavior is a form of insanity.”
And, “I will have peace of mind in exact proportion to the peace of mind I bring into the lives of other people.”
Photo of Wynn and George
Sometime after 1955 when her story appeared in the Big Book, she married her fifth husband, George Laws, another AA member. George and Wynn were married for several years and his daughter Carolyn lived with them for awhile.
After they were divorced, according to Carolyn, Wynn dated a wealthy insurance executive whom she had hoped to marry.
Photo of Carolyn See
George and Wynn were a popular team speaking at meetings. “My dad was Wynn’s opening act,” said Carolyn. “He couldn’t help but be funny. Then he would defer to Wynn, whose tale was hair-raising.”
Carolyn writes: “Wynn’s mother had deserted her in order to go out and live a selfish life. An unloving grandmother reared her in strict poverty.
She contracted typhoid fever and hovered between life and death for about ninety days. All her hair and (though she would not admit this) her teeth fell out.” She recovered at about age sixteen. Her beautiful red hair grew back in. And she wore dentures “stuck in so firmly that no one saw her without them.”
According to Carolyn, “she began carving out a career as a femme fatale, and started drinking to bridge the gap between the grim hash-slinging reality she was born to, and the golden mirage of American romance she yearned for.”
Wynn said in her story that she didn’t know how to love. Fear of rejection and its ensuring pain were not to be risked. When she found alcohol it seemed to solve her problems—for a time.
But soon things fell apart and jails and hospitals followed. When she wound up in a hospital for detoxification, she began to take stock and realized she had lived with no sense of social obligation or responsibility to her fellow men. She was full of resentments and fears.
An article by a prominent clergyman helped her with a 25 year-old resentment against her mother.
He said in effect: “If you have a resentment you want to be free of, if you will pray for the person or the thing that you resent, you will be free. If you will ask in prayer for everything you want for yourself to be given to them, you will be free. Ask for their health, their prosperity, their happiness, and you will be free.
Even when you don’t really want it for them and your prayers are only words and you don’t mean it, go ahead and do it anyway. Do it every day for two weeks and you will find you have come to mean it and to want it for them, and you will realize that where you used to feel bitterness and resentment and hatred, you now feel compassionate understanding and love.
I call this the two-week diet prayer and if I miss a day, I have to start over. Wynn said: “As another great man says, ‘The only real freedom a human being can ever know is doing what you ought to do because you want to do it.'” That “great man” may have been Bill Wilson.
“I get everything I need in Alcoholics Anonymous—everything I need I get—and when I get what I need, I invariably find that it was just what I wanted all the time.”
Wynn and Jack P. of Los Angeles started more than 80 meetings in hospitals, jails and prisons in Southern California from about 1947 to 1950. Jack P. reports that during this period they were widely criticized by other members of the Fellowship who thought this was not something AA should be doing.
“AA can be said to have worked for my father and Wynn,” wrote Carolyn. “Although they would divorce, neither of them would ever take a drink again.”
Carolyn comments: “Wynn changed, improved, and transformed thousands of lives. She was the woman who wrote ‘Freedom from Bondage’ under the section ‘They Lost Nearly All’ in the AA Big Book.
She was the girl who lost all her teeth from typhoid when she was in her teens, who slung hash way up into her forties, and who died a cruel death from cancer when she was way too young. She couldn’t have done it if she hadn’t ‘lost nearly all.'”
The date of Wynn’s death is unknown, but she apparently died in poverty.
All these stories, which are from the first two editions of the Big Book, can be found in the Conference Approved book, Experience, Strength and Hope.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about these seven incredible pioneer women of Alcoholics Anonymous as much as I have.
Thank you for allowing me to share this bit of our history with you today.
“This worldly lady helped to develop A.A. in Chicago and thus passed her keys to many.”
According to member list index cards kept by the Chicago group, Sylvia’s date of sobriety was September 13, 1939. Sylvia was probably the first woman to achieve long term sobriety, from then until her death. The false notion has been perpetuated that Marty M. (“Women Suffer Too,”) was the first female in A.A. with enduring sobriety. After repeated slips Marty finally was sober from Christmas 1940 until some time around 1960, when she again relapsed. She sobered again and remained so until her death.
Sylvia was raised in a good environment with loving and conscientious parents and given every advantage: the best schools, summer camps, resort vacations and…. She was the product of the post-war prohibition era of the roaring ’20s. She married at twenty, had two children, and was divorced at twenty-three. This gave her a good excuse to drink. By twenty-five she had developed into an alcoholic. She began making the
Rounds of the doctors in the hope that one of them might find a cure for her accumulating ailments, most of whom prescribed sedatives and advised rest and moderation. Between the ages of twenty-five the wine diet, timing, measuring, and spacing of drinks. Nothing worked. The next three years saw her in sanitariums, once in a ten-day coma from which she very nearly died. She wanted to die, but had lost the courage to try. For about one year prior to this time there was one doctor who did not give up on her. He tried everything he could think of, including having her go to mass every morning at six a.m., and performing the most menial labor for his charity patients. This doctor apparently had the intuitive knowledge that spirituality and helping others might be the answer.
In the 1939 this doctor heard of the book Alcoholics Anonymous and wrote to New York for a copy. After reading it he tucked it under his arm and called on Sylvia. That visit marked the turning point of her life. He must have studied the book carefully because he took its advice. He gave her the cold, hard facts about her condition, and that she would either die of acute alcoholism, develop a wet brain, or have to be put away permanently. Then he told her of the handful of people in Akron and New York who seemed to have worked out a technique for arresting their alcoholism. He asked her to read the book and to talk with a man who experienced success by using this plan. This was Earl T. (“He Sold Himself Short” – 2nd & 3rd Ed.), the “Mr. T.” to whom she refers on page 309. Earl suggested she visit Akron . According to Bill W., she got off to a slow start there, and may also have been a pill addict. She took a lot of “little white pills” which she claimed were saccharin, and no one could understand why she was so rubber-legged. A nurse was flown in, presumably from Chicago , to take care of her. Sylvia stayed two weeks at Clarence (Clarence S., “The Home Brewmeister”) and Dorothy S.’s home in Cleveland . She met Dr. Bob, who brought other A.A. men to meet her. Dorothy S. said that the men “were only too willing to talk to her after they saw her.” Sylvia was a glamorous divorcee, extremely good looking, and rich. But these attractions probably did not help her with the wives of the alcoholics, who were known on occasion to run women out. After meeting Dr. Bob she wanted to move to Akron , but this caused great consternation, since her presence threatened to disrupt the whole group. Someone told her it would mean a great deal more if she could go back and help in Chicago . She went back to Chicago where she eventually got sober September 13, 1939. She worked closely with Earl T., and her personal secretary, Grace C., became the first secretary at the Intergroup office in Chicago , the first in the country.
Sylvia updated her story in the January 1969 issue of the “A.A. Grapevine.” She tells how busy her first ten years in A.A. were, but how all this tremendous activity, by bringing her into almost constant contact with other members, provided her with everything she most desperately needed to save her life. As she looked back she realized this was the most excitingly beautiful period of her life. When she wrote this update, Sylvia had been living in Sarasota , Florida , with her husband, Dr. Ed S., and was soon to celebrate their eighteenth wedding anniversary. “He is an alky, too, and our lives have been enriched by our mutual faith and perseverance in the A.A. way of life. Through it we have found a quality of happiness and serenity that, we believe, could not have been realized in any other way. Small wonder our gratitude knows no bounds.”
Who was Dr. Bob?
Robert Holbrook Smith was born on August 8th 1879 in St. Johnsbury , Vermont . After graduation from Dartmouth Collegein 1902, he completed his medical training at Rush Medical School in Chicago . While attending college, he became a steady drinker; a situation that progressed until his recovery. In 1915, some 17 years after he had first met her, he married his high school sweetheart Anne Ripley and brought her to Akron . Even though he became a successful surgeon, he continued to struggle with alcoholism.
In 1935 Dr. Bob met Bill Wilson, a New York businessman and entrepreneur who was struggling with his own alcoholism. The two immediately became close friends, with Bill showing Dr. Bob how he, Bill, with spiritual help, was finally able to recover from the effects of alcoholism,. Dr. Bob had his last drink on June 10, 1935, and that is considered to be the founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1939 the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, written by Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob and other early members of our fellowship was published, and the fellowship that came to be known as Alcoholics Anonymous was born. Dr. Bob was called the “Prince of Twelfth Steppers” by Bill Wilson because he personally treated more than 5000 alcoholics without charge. Also, it was in Dr. Bob’s home that some of the basic ideas essential to the A.A. way of life were developed.
Dr. Bob always said that A.A.’s fundamental ideas came from the study of the Bible and that he personally did not write or have anything to do with the later writing of the 12 Steps. In Dr. Bob’s mind, the Steps in their deepest essence simply mean “love and service.”
Dr. Bob died on November 16, 1950 in Akron , Ohio after 15 years of uninterrupted sobriety. Ever a self-effacing and humble man, he might be astonished, and we feel very pleased, to realize that Alcoholics Anonymous has become a world-wide organization that continues to help so many helpless alcoholics begin and continue along the Road of Happy Destiny.
© Copyright 2007 Dr. Bob’s Home
Doctor William Silkworth
Doctor William D. Silkworth, called, “the little doctor who loved drunks”, began an indispensable contribution to Alcoholics Anonymous during the early 1930’s from his position as medical director of Charles B. Towns Hospital, 293 Central Park West (89th street), New York, N.Y. Towns, founded in 1901, was well known then as a rich man’s drying-out place; a rehab for the wealthy, and it served a worldwide clientele. American millionaires, European royalty and oil sheiks from the middle east walked its halls, side by side: brothers in humiliation in bathrobes and slippers.
It was Dr. Silkworth who told Bill Wilson, during the summer of 1933, of the nature of alcoholism: that, in his opinion, the problem had nothing to do with vice or habit or lack of character. It was, he said, an illness with both mental and physical components. Silkworth is quoted widely as calling the illness a combination of “—an obsession of the mind that condemns one to drink and an allergy of the body that condemns one to die” or go mad if one continues to ingest alcohol.
Dr. Silkworth was not the first highly respected authority to write about alcoholism. Solomon, considered the wise man of his era, wrote about it in Proverbs, Chapter 23, and Verses 29 through 35. Solomon’s Biblical words seem an accurate description of the alcoholic of today.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of The Declaration of Independence, was the first member of the medical community to write about alcoholism and suggest it might be an illness. In a medical paper he wrote in 1784, Dr. Rush said he thought alcoholism was “-a disease process.” He offered no further clinical evidence. So: Dr. Silkworth, it appears, was the first medical person to detail alcoholism, in writing, as an illness.
Silkworth, thus, disagreed with his employer, Charles B. Towns. Towns, who had once claimed to have a “cure” for alcoholism, believed firmly in a physiological, medical model of addiction. But, he denied that alcoholism, per se, was a disease. Silkworth argued that certain individuals were “constitutionally susceptible to sensitization by alcohol” and that drinking sparked an allergic reaction. This, he insisted, made it physically impossible for an alcoholic ever to tolerate alcohol. Moreover, he said, that problem drinkers would have to learn and accept this fact as part of their treatment.
Silkworth played a major role in many of the early recoveries from active alcoholism, particularly those in New York . It’s estimated that he treated forty-thousand alcoholics during his career. The introduction to his writings in the book, “Alcoholics Anonymous” says early AA members considered the Brooklyn-born Silkworth no less than a medical saint.
Dr. Silkworth advised Bill Wilson to stop preaching at the drunks he was trying to help by telling them about his powerful spiritual experience. Silkworth urged Wilson to begin, instead, by telling each of the alcoholics that his condition was hopeless, a matter of life-or-death. Only then, Silkworth believed, would the drunks be willing to listen to a story about a spiritual remedy.
Through no fault of the doctor’s, there is disagreement about parts of his professional history and about his birth year. In Silkworth’s biography in the book, “Dictionary of American Temperance Biography: From Temperance Reform to Alcohol Research, the 1600s to the 1980s,” the historian Mark Edward Lender lists Silkworth’s date of birth as July 22, 1877. All other sources used in this compilation, which contain a date of birth for Silkworth, including his New York Times obituary, agree that Silkworth’s birth year was 1873.
It’s agreed, generally, that Silkworth graduated from Princeton University (A.B. 1896) and that he took his M.D. degree from New York University-Bellevue Medical School (1899). But, two principal sources, “Pass It On,” published by Alcoholics Anonymous, and, “Not-God,” researched and written by the widely respected historian Ernest Kurtz, Ph.D and published by Hazleden, offer differing versions of his career path thereafter.
“Pass It On,” (p. 101) reports Silkworth became a specialist in neurology, a domain that sometimes overlaps psychiatry, and entered private practice in the 1920’s. It says Silkworth invested his savings in a stock subscription for a new, private hospital. “Pass It On” says Silkworth’s investment came with the promise of a staff position when the hospital was built. But, the report says Silkworth lost everything in the stock market collapse of 1929. And,”Pass It On” quotes Bill Wilson as saying that Silkworth, in desperation, went to Towns in 1930 for compensation of about forty dollars a week, plus board.
“Not-God,” (p. 22) reports that after he received his medical degree from
NYU, Silkworth began a coveted internship during 1900 at Bellevue Hospital , 462 First Avenue (27th. Street), in Manhattan . It says that in 1924-after completing specialty training as a neuro-psychiatrist—Silkworth became medical director of Towns. “Not-God” notes that Dr. Silkworth estimated his patients’ rate of recovery, until Bill Wilson came along, at “approximately only two percent.”
So: “Pass It On” and “Not-God” show a six-year difference in Silkworth’s arrival date at Towns.
A third source offers a wider time differential but more information about Silkworth. The respected Journal of Studies on Alcohol, published monthly by The Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University , New Brunswick , New Jersey reports Silkworth arrived at Towns in 1932. An article by Leonard Blumberg, (Professor of Sociology, Temple University , Philadelphia Vol. 38. No. 11, 1977, “The Ideology of a Therapeutic Social Movement: Alcoholics Anonymous”) says Dr. Silkworth worked at Towns from 1932 until his death in 1951.
Silkworth’s entire career had a psychiatric emphasis. He was a member of the psychiatric staff at the US . Army Hospital in Plattsburgh, New York , for two years (1917-1919) during World War I.
Dr. Silkworth also served as associate physician at the Neurological Institute of Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan from 1919 to 1929. He had also been connected with Broad Street Hospital .
The Blumberg article leaves room for speculation about the circumstances under which Silkworth left the prestigious PresbyterianHospital in 1929. It concludes that he probably was laid off during a staff reduction following the stock market crash of that same year. The article does not attempt to fill the time vacuum of approximately three years until it says Silkworth went to Towns.
Regardless of his starting date at Towns, Wilson said Silkworth’s arrival there was the turning point in the doctor’s life. Nearly all sources agree that he worked there approximately nineteen years.
Additionally, Dr. Silkworth was a major influence in persuading the management of Knickerbocker Hospital in upper Manhattan to set aside a small ward, beginning in 1945, for the treatment of alcoholics. Knickerbocker was the first general hospital in New York to do so. (This is significant because many general hospitals at that time would not admit alcoholics as alcoholics. Their doctors had to admit them under false diagnoses.) Dr. Silkworth served six years at Knickerbocker as director of alcoholic treatment, attending an estimated seven thousand alcoholics. Teddy R., a nurse who was an AA member, ran the alcoholism ward. Figures as to costs at Knickerbocker are unconfirmable. But, the fees and other expenses there were much less than at Towns, where patients paid $125.00 for one week of treatment, during the early and mid-1930’s. At Knickerbocker, drunks off the street with no financial resources were de-toxified.
William Duncan Silkworth died Thursday morning, March 22, 1951 of heart attack at his home, 45 W. 81st. Street, New York. He and his wife, Marie, had lived in Manhattan during their later years. But, it’s known that he commuted for part of the time he worked in New York from a home in Little Silver, New Jersey . Today, there’s a train station about one block away from that house, which-as of this writing — is still standing. But, it’s unclear whether the train station was there at the time Silkworth lived in Little Silver.
As noted previously, the book, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” reports that early AA members considered Dr. Silkworth a “—medical saint.” It was never a secret that his personal relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous was both deep and emotional. He was called, “-the little doctor who loved drunks” because he genuinely cared for and experienced communion with alcoholics. And, they loved him. An in-depth explanation can be found in, “Language of The Heart,” (p. 176).
In an article he wrote years later for The Grapevine, Bill Wilson noted that Dr. Silkworth treated some 40,000 alcoholics during his career. Wilson added, “He never tired of drunks and their problems. A frail man, he never complained of fatigue. During most of his career he made only a bare living. He never sought distinction; his work was his reward. In his last years, he ignored a heart condition and died on the job–among us drunks, and with his boots on.”
All but one of the AA historians who influenced this writing believe that Dr. Silkworth held positions at both Towns and KnickerbockerHospitals at the time of his death. But, it should be noted that the respected AA historian and author Mel B., who wrote much of “Pass It On,” the official AA biography of Bill Wilson, mentions only Silkworth’s affiliation with Knickerbocker Hospital at the time of the doctor’s death.
Wilson showed his gratitude to Silkworth in 1950 and ’51, when he and some associates tried to raise enough money to allow “Silkie” and Marie, to retire to New Hampshire . The doctor was going to be medical director of the treatment center, Beech Hill Farm, near Dublin ,New Hampshire . But, Silkworth died before it could happen. So: Bill, noting Mrs. Silkworth’s strained financial circumstances, raised $25,000 for a Silkworth Memorial, to supplement the widow’s small income.
Dr. Silkworth’s death was announced to the Fellowship in the April 1951 version of the AA Grapevine. And, the article indicates AAs of that time considered Silkworth more than a “medical saint.” To those AA’s who knew him, William Duncan Silkworth was a hero. The April 1951 Grapevine article notes, “He freely risked his professional reputation to champion an unprecedented spiritual answer to the medical enigma and the human tragedy of alcoholism.” Historians point out that he might have been laughed out of the American Medical Association for holding such a view. Obviously, that did not happen.
Wilson , who previously had referred to Dr. Silkworth as “-AA’s first and best friend” eulogized Silkworth in the May 1951 Grapevine. And, his affection and sense of personal loss is expressed in a notation on a copy of the appeal for funds (found in the archives of the General Service Conference of A.A.) It says, “Thank Heaven we started this before Silkie went.”
The Wilson article, written especially for The Grapevine, concludes with two questions: “Who of us in AA can match this record of Dr. Silkworth’s? Who has his measure of fortitude, faith and dedication?”.
SOURCES: The AA publications: “Alcoholics Anonymous”, “Pass It On”, “The Grapevine” and “Language of The Heart”; the Archives of the AA General Service Office; “Not-God” by Ernest Kurtz; “The Journal of Studies on Alcohol 1977” which contained “The Ideology of a Therapeutic Social Movement: Alcoholics Anonymous.” by Leonard Blumberg: published by The Center of Alcohol Studies, Rutgers University); “Dictionary of American Temperance Biography: From Temperance Reform to Alcohol Research, the 1600s to the 1980s” by Mark Edward Lender; “Lois Remembers” by Lois Burnham Wilson; “My Search For Bill W” by Mel B.; Yale University; New York University and private conversations with AA’s who knew Dr. Silkworth.
I’m grateful for the above sources. Any errors are my own.
Researched/written for: The Round Table of AA History by Mike O., of The Just Do It Big Book Study Group of Alcoholics Anonymous, DeBary , Florida.
Updated/revised: 1999, 2000, and 2001.