What is the History of Alcoholics Anonymous?

They meet in libraries, church basements, hospitals, and all sorts of locations around the world. Every day, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings provide a sense of strength and community to alcoholics from all walks of life. The members consist of all races, sexes, ages, and political views, but the thing that unites them all is the desire to stay sober. AA has truly become a part of the fabric of society. Most people living today don’t remember a time when AA didn’t exist. But how did this organization get started?

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Bill W. and Dr. Bob

The history of AA began with a man named Bill Wilson. Simply called “Bill W.” in the AA literature, Bill had a successful life and career in stocks and investments. However, his compulsive alcoholism quickly tarnished his reputation and made his business life difficult.


At the urging of an old drinking buddy, Bill started visiting the Oxford Group, a Christian community that would become the inspiration for AA. While the Oxford Group certainly helped Bill by lending him strength and social support, his drinking continued on and off for several years. Once, on a business trip, Bill found himself tempted to drink. He determined that the only way to help himself was to help another alcoholic. That other alcoholic was Dr. Bob Smith.


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Bob Smith was often called “Dr. Bob,” and he worked as a physician and a surgeon. Plagued by his own drinking problem, Dr. Bob checked into several hospitals in hopes of getting sober, but none of the treatments worked for the long term. Though he lived during the Prohibition era, he managed to obtain enough illegal and medicinal alcohol to fuel his addiction.


When Dr. Bob was introduced to Bill W. in 1935, both men acknowledged that they needed help to overcome their addictions. Together, they organized the first Alcoholics Anonymous group.

32% of AA members were referred to their groups by another member.

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The Big Book and the 12 Steps

Bill W. and Dr. Bob began working on the 12 Steps that would eventually define AA. These steps created a clearly-defined spiritual process designed to help alcoholics transition into a life of full sobriety. Though each step is distinct, the process as a whole can be summed up in the following process:


  • The individual identifies him or herself as an alcoholic. He or she admits to having a problem and a need to seek help.
  • The alcoholic person pursues a path of spirituality.
  • He or she acknowledges the pain caused by the alcoholism and seeks to make amends whenever possible.

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While the above points describe the 12 Step process as a whole, the individual Steps break down the process into smaller, more manageable responsibilities. In 1939, AA published a book called Alcoholics Anonymous, often called “The Big Book.” The Big Book described how the two founders struggled with alcoholism. This famous book carefully explained the 12 Steps in an organized format. With over 500 pages of helpful content, it quickly became the Bible of the AA 12 step program.


The Big Book details many facets of alcoholism including the medical view, the spiritual view, how alcoholism affects others, and most importantly that there is a solution. Many people have asked if alcoholism is a disease and there is a lot of light shed on that question as well. Simply put, this book is a valuable resource for anyone struggling with an alcohol problem.

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The Twelve Traditions

Reviewing the history of AA would not be complete without some mention of the disputes that arose. A short time after its inception, AA grew into several groups across the United States. The 12 Steps caught the attention of many alcoholics who wanted to use the system themselves. Different group dynamics led to disputes about how to handle different beliefs.


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Several people wrote to the founders, asking how they should handle certain disagreements among members. Bill W. and Dr. Bob wrote the 12 Traditions as a result of these disagreements. Among other things, the 12 Traditions reaffirmed the importance of anonymity, the need for self-sustainability, and the autonomy of the individual AA groups. Later additions of the Big Book would include the 12 Traditions as part of the publication.

Narcotics Anonymous

AA had quickly established itself as an effective way to help alcoholics, but what about those who were addicted to other drugs? In the mid-1950s, several AA members asked the same question. Because the primary focus of AA was abstaining from alcohol, those who had other addictions didn’t feel as if the group met their needs.


A small group splintered away from the main group, calling itself Narcotics Anonymous. This group kept the 12 Step principles, although they altered the wording slightly to reflect drugs other than alcohol. Like AA, Narcotics Anonymous still exists today. It serves those impacted by alcohol and other drugs. It has its own literature and has grown into a thriving community.

AA Today

AA has over two million members, about half of whom reside in the U.S.

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Today, AA exists not just in the United States but in places all around the globe. While AA primarily served men at the beginning of its history, its membership includes both men and women today. While all groups are welcoming to anyone who wants to stop drinking, a person could easily find an AA group that caters to their specific gender or age.


The 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions have remained unchanged, and one can still find them listed in the Big Book, which is currently in its fourth edition. The history of AA and its success owes a lot to the Big Book and its two founders.


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Do You Need More Information?

If you’re an alcoholic who wants to stop drinking, the only thing you have to do to join AA is to show up for a meeting. If you think you might also need rehab or detoxification, we can help you find the right treatment program that will work for you. Alcoholism is a major struggle, and you shouldn’t have to deal with it alone. Call 800-492-QUIT and get the support that you need. We care!
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