The Birth of A.A. and Its Growth in the U.S./Canada
AA had its beginnings in 1935 at Akron, Ohio, as the outcome of a meeting between Bill W., a New York stockbroker, and Dr. Bob S., an Akron surgeon. Both had been hopeless alcoholics.
Prior to that time, Bill and Dr. Bob had each been in contact with the Oxford Group, a mostly nonalcoholic fellowship that emphasized universal spiritual values in daily living. In that period, the Oxford Groups in America were headed by the noted Episcopal clergyman, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker. Under this spiritual influence, and with the help of an old-time friend, Ebby T., Bill had gotten sober and had then maintained his recovery by working with other alcoholics, though none of these had actually recovered. Meanwhile, Dr. Bob’s Oxford Group membership at Akron had not helped him enough to achieve sobriety.
When Dr. Bob and Bill finally met, the effect on the doctor was immediate. This time, he found himself face to face with a fellow sufferer who had made good. Bill emphasized that alcoholism was a malady of mind, emotions and body. This all-important fact he had learned from Dr. William D. Silkworth of Towns Hospital in New York, where Bill had often been a patient. Though a physician, Dr. Bob had not known alcoholism to be a disease. Responding to Bill’s convincing ideas, he soon got sober, never to drink again. The founding spark of A.A. had been struck.
Both men immediately set to work with alcoholics at Akron’s City Hospital, where one patient quickly achieved complete sobriety. Though the name Alcoholics Anonymous had not yet been coined, these three men actually made up the nucleus of the first A.A. group.
In the fall of 1935, a second group of alcoholics slowly took shape in New York. A third appeared at Cleveland in 1939. It had taken over four years to produce 100 sober alcoholics in the three founding groups. Early in 1939, the Fellowship published its basic textbook, Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book). The text, written by Bill, explained AA’s philosophy and methods, the core of which was the now well- known Twelve Steps of recovery. The book was also reinforced by case histories of some thirty recovered members. From this point, AA’s development was rapid.
Also in 1939, the Cleveland Plain Dealer carried a series of articles about AA, supported by warm editorials. The Cleveland group of only twenty members was deluged by countless pleas for help. Alcoholics sober only a few weeks were set to work on brand-new cases. This was a new departure, and the results were fantastic. A few months later, Cleveland’s membership had expanded to 500. For the first time, it was shown that sobriety could be mass-produced.
Meanwhile, in New York, Dr. Bob and Bill had in 1938 organized an overall trusteeship for the budding Fellowship. Friends of John D. Rockefeller Jr. became board members alongside a contingent of AAs. This board was named The Alcoholic Foundation. However, all efforts to raise large amounts of money failed, because Mr. Rockefeller had wisely concluded that great sums might spoil the infant society. Nevertheless, the foundation managed to open a tiny office in New York to handle inquiries and to distribute the AA book — an enterprise which, by the way, had been mostly financed by the AAs themselves.
The book and the new office were quickly put to use. An article about AA was carried by Liberty magazine in the fall of 1939, resulting in some 800 urgent calls for help. In 1940, Mr. Rockefeller gave a dinner for many of his prominent New York friends to publicize A.A. This brought yet another flood of pleas. Each inquiry received a personal letter and a small pamphlet. Attention was also drawn to the book Alcoholics Anonymous, which soon moved into brisk circulation. Aided by mail from New York, and by AA travelers from already-established centers, many new groups came alive. At the year’s end, the membership stood at 2,000.
Then, in March 1941, the Saturday Evening Post featured an excellent article about A.A., and the response was enormous. By the close of that year, the membership had jumped to 6,000, and the number of groups multiplied in proportion. Spreading across the U.S. and Canada, the Fellowship mushroomed.
By 1950, 100,000 recovered alcoholics could be found worldwide. Spectacular though this was, the period 1940-1950 was nonetheless one of great uncertainty. The crucial question was whether all those mercurial alcoholics could live and work together in groups. Could they hold together and function effectively? This was the unsolved problem. Corresponding with thousands of groups about their problems became a chief occupation of the New York headquarters.
By 1946, however, it had already become possible to draw sound conclusions about the kinds of attitude, practice and function that would best suit AA’s purpose. Those principles, which had emerged from strenuous group experience, were codified by Bill in what are today the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. By 1950, the earlier chaos had largely disappeared. A successful formula for A.A. unity and functioning had been achieved and put into practice.
During this hectic ten-year period, Dr. Bob devoted himself to the question of hospital care for alcoholics, and to their indoctrination with AA principles. Large numbers of alcoholics flocked to Akron to receive hospital care at St. Thomas, a Catholic hospital. Dr. Bob became a member of its staff. Subsequently, he and the remarkable Sister M. Ignatia, also of the staff, cared for and brought AA to some 5,000 sufferers. After Dr. Bob’s death in 1950, Sister Ignatia continued to work at Cleveland’s Charity Hospital, where she was assisted by the local groups and where 10,000 more sufferers first found AA. This set a fine example of hospitalization wherein AA could cooperate with both medicine and religion.
In this same year of 1950, AA held its first International Convention at Cleveland. There, Dr. Bob made his last appearance and keyed his final talk to the need of keeping AA simple. Together with all present, he saw the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous enthusiastically adopted for the permanent use of the AA Fellowship throughout the world. (He died on November 16, 1950.)
The following year witnessed still another significant event. The New York office had greatly expanded its activities, and these now consisted of public relations, advice to new groups, services to hospitals, prisons, Loners, and Internationalists, and cooperation with other agencies in the alcoholism field. The headquarters was also publishing “standard” AA books and pamphlets, and it supervised their translation into other tongues. Our international magazine, the AA Grapevine, had achieved a large circulation. These and many other activities had become indispensable for AA as a whole.
Nevertheless, these vital services were still in the hands of an isolated board of trustees, whose only link to the Fellowship had been Bill and Dr. Bob. As the co-founders had foreseen years earlier, it became absolutely necessary to link AA’s world trusteeship (nowthe General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous) with the Fellowship that it served. Delegates from all states and provinces of the U.S. and Canada were forthwith called in. Thus composed, this body for world service first met in 1951. Despite earlier misgivings, the gathering was a great success. For the first time, the remote trusteeship became directly accountable to AA as a whole. The AA General Service Conference had been created, and AA’s over-all functioning was thereby assured for the future.
A second International Convention was held in St. Louis in 1955 to celebrate the Fellowship’s 20th anniversary. The General Service Conference had by then completely proved its worth. Here, on behalf of AA’s old-timers, Bill turned the future care and custody of AA over to the Conference and its trustees. At this moment, the Fellowship went on its own; AA had come of age.
In 1960, Long Beach, California played host to AA’s 25th anniversary celebration with 8,900 in attendance. The Fellowship’s 50th anniversary International Convention in Montréal in
1985 drew more than 45,000 members of AA, Al-Anon, family and friends. One of the honored guests was Ruth Hock Cornelius a nonalcoholic, who received the 5 millionth copy of the Big Book, the manuscript of which she had typed almost a half century earlier when she was Bill W.’s secretary. In 2010 our 75th anniversary was held in San Antonio, Texas, and celebrated by 53,000 people, demonstrating how, over the years, the International Convention has steadily grown. The 30 millionth copy of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was presented to the American Medical Association, which in 1956 formally declared alcoholism an illness.
Had it not been for A.A.’s early friends, Alcoholics Anonymous might never have come into being. And with- out its host of well wishers who have since given of their time and effort — particularly those friends of medicine, religion, and world communications — A.A. could never have grown and prospered. The fellowship here records its constant gratitude.
It was on January 24, 1971, that Bill, a victim of pneumonia, died in Miami Beach, Florida, where — seven months earlier — he had delivered at the 35th Anniversary International Convention what proved to be his last words to fellow AAs: “God bless you and Alcoholics Anonymous forever.”
History of Alcoholics Anonymous in Australia
One of the First AA Contacts
On the 7th December 1942, the Medical Superintendent of Rydalmere Hospital in Sydney NSW, Dr. Sylvester. Minogue, wrote to The Editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry in the USA. He had read an article in the Journal by Dr Harry Tiebout, a prominent psychiatrist and the first of his kind to embrace Alcoholics Anonymous as a successful treatment of alcoholism. The letter was passed on to the Alcoholic Foundation as the office was then known. It was date stamped 26th January – a significant date for Australia – Australia Day 1943. In 1954, the Foundation became known as the General Service Board. The letter was requesting further information regarding the formation of a ‘Branch of Alcoholics Anonymous in NSW’.
The Secretary of the AA Central Office in New York Margaret (Bobby) Berger wrote back to Dr. Minogue, and included in the reply was the promise to send a complimentary copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous; the “Big Book” as it is now affectionately known, arrived on Australia as a gift. Being wartime, US dollars were needed to purchase anything in the US. These books were not classed as medical books so the government would not supply AA with the necessary dollars. On the 17th March 1943 Dr. Minogue contacted the office again in the USA stating that the Book Alcoholics Anonymous had arrived and was proving to be a mine of information for him. He commented also on the fact that after some 20 years of treating alcoholics in this country, there was only a small percentage of recoveries, and a great proportion of failures.” He also made the observation that” Acute alcoholics recover rapidly in hospital, and relapse just as rapidly on their discharge!!” He also observed that alcoholics had their feet firmly planted in midair.
One of the First AA Groups
Over the years Dr Minogue tried to get a meeting going without success. Later he got together with Father Thomas Dunlea who was the founder of Boy’s town in Australia. Father Dunlea had also tried to get a meeting going around the Sutherland area. There were some meetings going before the one that started in 1945 which is recognised as the beginning of AA in Australia. But these meetings never caught on at that time because there were too many hangers on who wanted to exploit Alcoholics Anonymous. The meetings were shut down one way or the other. Eventually in 1944 Archie McKinnon, a psychiatric working at the old Reception house at Darlinghurst read the same article as Dr Minogue in the American Journal of Psychiatry and found out that Dr Minogue and Father Dunlea were already trying with the help of the Big Book to get some alcoholics sober.
Archie contacted them and they combined forces. He invited Dr Minogue and the late Father Tom Dunlea to join him in helping to bring about a better way of life to the suffering alcoholic. They had a little group which met at Dr Minogue’s residence at the Rydalmere Hospital. It was only held there for about a month and was then moved, as this venue was inconvenient to travel at night and they were able to acquire another venue in the city. This first Group was a mix of both non-alcoholic and alcoholic members. Father Dunlea had tried to help the down and out alcoholics at Sutherland by means of preaching, concerts, gifts of money, and clothing. These were the ways in which he tried to get through to the unfortunates who huddled in the camps where the food was scarce, but some good alcohol was available so they would not drink metho or cheap wine. The result was a dismal failure.
The Spread of AA Throughout Australia 1945-1955
There were very few books available in this country in those earlier days which was a major problem in transmitting the message of our Fellowship; this then had to be done by word of mouth. Then came the first brochure entitled “The Basic Principles of AA” which was put together by those early pioneers and was described as an instructive little booklet. A Radio broadcaster, Frank Sturge Hardy was approached by Archie and one of the early members, Jack, to give the Fellowship some needed exposure. Sturge, as he was known in AA, was surprised to know there was a group in Sydney, as he had been broadcasting about AA since 1944 from 2GB on his program “Let’s talk it over”, and did so at every opportunity. Sturge was a great speaker and did so at AA meetings for the next thirty years. He had been an Anglican priest, was known as a very spiritual man and helped the early members to interpret the Twelve Steps.
Jack was never comfortable with the spirituality of the program and eventually started a breakaway group. He emasculated the steps and removed any reference to the spiritual. He called it the “Common Sense” Group. He was a good speaker and several members followed him out. It only lasted about a month and folded up. They all came back sheepishly except Jack. Unfortunately he later died from and overdose of paraldehyde. The Big Book and the Basic Principles of AA were all the literature they had at the time to get the knowledge of the program. Father Richard Murphy came on the scene late in 1945. Dr Minogue, Father Dunlea and Archie McKinnon had different ideas how the program should be used and Father Murphy was very helpful in helping to smooth down the tension and helped them to see the best way to move forward. He played a similar role as that of Father Ed Dowling in the early days of AA in the US.
In October 1946, Archie was then invited down to Melbourne to visit and advise the Brotherhood of St Laurence there to speak on his work with alcoholics. This was AA’s first move interstate and a Group was started by a clergyman of the St Laurence Order. In June 1947 Meredith, an alcoholic, and a wine merchant from Adelaide travelled to Sydney to learn about the AA way of life, he founded the first Group in Adelaide, in that same year the actress Lillian R. visited Australia and was very instrumental in giving AA a kick-start by speaking at Public Meetings wherever she and her husband Bert M. went. Jim from Western Australia, also travelled to Sydney, he returned home to form the first Group there. In Queensland, a group was started in Brisbane by Dan.C, and in 1949, a group was started in Hobart Tasmania, the inaugural meeting in Darwin was held in 1955. As a matter of interest regarding AA worldwide, Father Tom Dunlea, on a visit to Ireland in 1946 spoke so much about AA in Dublin that it started a chain of inquiries which resulted in a group being formed in that city – the first one in Europe.
The Structual Development
Our first Central Service Office opened in Sydney 1952, and to this day is still one of the largest and most effective Central Service Offices in this country. The two primary AA Central Service Offices in those days existed in Melbourne, Victoria and Sydney, New South Wales. These offices led the way for the development of Alcoholics Anonymous in Australia.
In 1954 it was proposed that the states come together for a national forum discussion, ideas from this forum which culminated in the First National Convention being held in Melbourne in 1959. It was at this Convention that a resolution was made to establish a General Service Committee. The resolution contained a proviso that it would not become effective until confirmed by the various States. This confirmation was forthcoming, and it was decided to hold a second Australian Convention in Sydney in 1961; the first one held under the auspices of the Australian Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In 1972 a General Service Office was opened in Sydney. The two primary Central Service Offices, both in Melbourne and Sydney continued to import and distribute AA literature and be primary hubs of responsibility and accountability for the Australian fellowship.
Public Information & Treatment and Correctional Work in the Australian Community
Two significant events in AA’s early days set the scene for the young fellowships’ entrance into the field of Public Information in New South Wales. The first was when the Secretary to the first group Rex, became frustrated at the poor press reports outlining what AA really meant. “He wrote a lengthy reasoned and authentic account of AA” and submitted it to the Sydney Morning Herald. The ‘Herald’ accepted the article, and printed it in its entirety. The second came when Frank Sturge Harty, a well known Sydney radio personality and non-alcoholic, was asked if he could help carry the message of AA via radio 2GB, he was only too pleased to help.
Our break into Treatment and Correctional fields is likewise documented. During those early days an invitation was extended to a Long Bay Gaol Officer to attend some meetings, and quite good results were achieved. After release, a few previous inmates began turning up for meetings. A meeting began in Callan Park Mental Asylum 1956. It was a daunting place for members there in those days as the windows still had bars on them and they had big iron doors which were slammed shut after the AA members were admitted. Not all of the patients at these meeting were alcoholics. Some of them were insane suffering from other mental illnesses. The members were wary of what reactions some of these patients may exhibit. One of the early members, Vic from Kingsford, himself was certified as insane three times and came along to the meeting in the hospital and was a great example to these suffering alcoholics. Similar things were happening in Melbourne, Victoria with AA meetings being held in Asylums such as Royal Park.
For more details on archival information in each State please contact your nearest Central Service Office.