Dr Bob: The Strange and Fascinating Life and Teachings of an AA Founder

... Credit :
Jane Taylor in World News

Last updated: 21 January 2020, 05:28 GMT

To live a life marked by a severe addiction, but yet one of great victory and notable accomplishment might be considered strange and fascinating. To have a legacy that benefits millions and to be known for your teachings nearly a century later goes beyond simply fascinating. Robert Holbrook Smith, also known as Dr. Bob, lived such a life.

Who Is Dr. Bob?

Dr. Bob is a man renowned and revered among those in the Alcoholics Anonymous community for a number of reasons. He is considered by many as the founder of this group, although the more common portrayal is of that of co-founder. AA's members have differing opinions as to who should be dubbed the founder.

Yet whoever you talk to, there's no question that Dr. Bob was a crucial person in the creation of AA and was there at the inception. As it is with the beginning of most great undertakings, there were many factors, unfolding events and people that worked together and led to the actual beginning of what came to be known as AA.

The Beginning of the Beginning

We won't go back to the creation of the universe here, but there's a point earlier than Dr. Bob's involvement that seems truly relevant at the root of the stream of events bringing about his contribution to sobriety.

The year was 1908. A Lutheran minister by the name of Frank Buchman attended a sermon at an annual gathering of Christian evangelists in Keswick, England. It was a transformative experience for him.

It took 13 years, but he eventually formed a movement he called A First Century Christian Fellowship, later re-named The Oxford Group. They used religion to help alcoholics get sober.

In January 1933, Anne Smith, the wife of Dr. Bob, went to a meeting of The Oxford Group in an effort to help her alcoholic husband. He joined the group, and they continued attending meetings for two years. In that same year, a salesman named Bill Wilson was treated for alcoholism at the Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions.

It didn't resolve his problem, but he was influenced by Dr. William D. Silkworth, who helped him see that alcoholism is a medical condition and a mental obsession. In late 1934, he also joined The Oxford Group. In 1935, he met Dr. Bob and helped him get sober.

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The Birth of Alcoholics Anonymous

Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson became great friends, dedicated to helping alcoholics get past their compulsion to drink. They didn't see what they were doing as a cure, but rather as a strategy to set alcohol aside and to live without it. The official founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous is considered to be June 10, 1935, because it was the day of Dr. Bob's last drink. This is not accepted by everyone, however. It's felt by some that the contributions of others merit membership in the Founders club.

Dr. Silkworth, for example, was instrumental in his explanation of alcoholism to Wilson. The Oxford Group's Sam Shoemaker of Calvary Episcopal Church was a key figure in getting Ebby Thacher sober, who then went on to bring his old friend Wilson into The Oxford Group.

It was there, among these people, that the basic tenets of their program were fleshed out and became the basis for the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous that Wilson later wrote. Sister Ignatia Gavin also made key contributions, providing medallions to recovering alcoholics as a symbol of their recovery, a tradition still used by AA. She helped create more tradition by referring group therapy candidates to early AA.

The American Social Climate Preceding AA

Following the depression of the 1890s, the American economy underwent significant changes. The Second Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Industry leaders in steel, auto manufacturing, production and more reorganized to prevent fluctuations in the economy.

Greater efficiency resulted. The rights of the factory workers began to be recognized, making workers' lives safer and less demanding. As the Roaring 20s arrived, there was increased optimism for the general population.


In 1920, Prohibition was passed into law. Sentiment against drinking had been on the rise for quite some time. World War I fueled the movement because the barley used for brewing was badly needed to make bread to feed American soldiers and hungry Europeans. Also, beer companies with German names were the targets of xenophobic rhetoric.

While it's true that alcohol consumption did go down during the 13 years Prohibition was in effect, there was always a good measure of resistance in a number of states. In the 1930s, the Great Depression was devastating for Americans. From bread lines to the Dust Bowl, there was little reason for optimism. Activists were pressing for repeal of the Amendment to the Constitution that had ushered in Prohibition.

The argument that resonated with the people was about the need for revenue in the form of taxes on alcohol if sold legally. Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned for doing away with Prohibition, and he won in a landslide. In 1933, to the relief of great segments of the population, alcohol was flowing legally once again.

In reality, Prohibition did little to stop people from getting alcohol if they really wanted it. There were prescriptions for alcoholic drinks sold in drug stores, speakeasies thrived with illegal drink, people made their own hootch, and some breweries found creative ways to get their product to the public in other forms.

In short, there was still plenty of demand for the product and the supply was there to be had. As we have seen, in the early 20th century people were struggling with alcoholism and there were organized efforts to help them.

The Strange and Fascinating Life and Teachings of AA Co-Founder Dr. Bob

Dr. Bob was born Robert Holbrook Smith on August 8, 1879, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. His parents were religious folks and made him attend services four times per week. The exposure had the opposite effect his parents would have liked. He resolved to never go to church as an adult.

He was not a drinker in high school, but he did take it up once he reached college. He learned to drink heavily at Dartmouth, where he discovered a comparatively good personal resilience to the after-effects of getting drunk. This gave him the idea that he was an alcoholic.

The drinking didn't have a terribly adverse effect on his grades, and he graduated in 1902. He spent the next three years in sales for hardware firms in Montreal and the Midwest, drinking hard all along the way.

Dr. Bob decided to pursue graduate work, studying medicine at the University of Michigan. His drinking habit became problematic, interfering with his class attendance. He was unable to continue and left school. He regrouped and managed to complete his sophomore year. He transferred to Rush Medical College, struggled due to his worsening alcoholism, and had to attend two extra quarters while maintaining sobriety in order to graduate.

He got married to Anne in 1915. He managed to move his life in opposing directions as a surgeon and an active alcoholic. He tried to rehabilitate through hospitals and such but to no avail. He thought maybe Prohibition could be the answer, but soon learned he could still get the alcohol he thirsted after. His life became a long-term conundrum as a physician who could not cure himself.

Free At Last

When his friend Bill was finally able to guide him through to sobriety, Dr. Bob dedicated himself to the recovery of those who had the same struggle as him. Although he didn't write Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism, he teamed with Wilson and some of those early members to contribute much of what comprises The Big Book, as it is now called.

Ironically, this man who swore off religion early in his life found wisdom and strength in the Bible to help himself and others fighting alcoholism. Dr. Bob came up with the following slogans:

  • First Things First (attributed to the Sermon On The Mount)
  • One Day at a Time (attributed to the Sermon On The Mount)


All we need for another meeting is a resentment and a pot of coffee.

Humility. Perpetual quietness of heart. It is to have no trouble. It is never to be fretted or vexed, irritable or sore. To wonder at nothing that is done to me.
To feel nothing that is done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me.

When I am blamed or despised, it is to have a blessed home in myself where I can go in and shut the door and kneel to my father in secret and be at peace, as in a deep sea of calmness. when all around and about is seeming trouble.



Dr. Bob was a true inspiration. With Sister Ignatia, he personally treated more than 5000 alcoholics in addition to those he helped in his own private practice. He would work with these patients at no charge at St. Thomas Hospital. Although he passed away in 1950 due to colon cancer, he's still helping alcoholics to this day.

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