History of AA: How Alcoholics Anonymous Sprouted in Akron


history of aa

It’s a sanctuary found anywhere in the world. A support system available anytime, to anyone, no questions asked. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a global fellowship of people. Men and women from all walks of life who share a common goal: to break free from the grips of alcohol abuse. It is self-sustaining, multiracial, apolitical and above all, a wellspring of hope and healing.

But what you probably didn’t know about AA is that it sprouted up right here in Ohio.

A Man Named Bill

It all started in 1934 with a stockbroker named Bill Wilson, whose shining Wall Street career was left in shambles due to his chronic alcoholism. His inability to put down the bottle led him to Towns Hospital in Manhattan, where he continued to drink in spite of treatment. As he approached his 39th birthday, Bill realized his problem had spiraled out of control. He feared that his situation was bleak at best, and at worst, irreversible. But all hope was not lost. In fact, it would soon arrive in the form of an old drinking buddy.

Hope Comes Unexpectedly

Edwin T., or Ebby, as Bill called him, was Bill’s schoolmate with whom he had shared many a jovial drink. Since those days, Bill continued to struggle but Ebby had kicked his alcoholism by joining a local fellowship, the Oxford Group. Formed in the early 20th century, this mostly nonalcoholic, partly Episcopal organization emphasized a set of universal values called the “four absolutes”: honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Through practicing the Oxford Group teachings of admitting wrongs, making amends and praying daily, Ebby experienced a life-changing spiritual awakening. Compelled to share his newfound peace and freedom with others, Ebby knew these seeds needed to be sown, and he knew exactly which one of his friends to meet with first. And it worked–after some hesitation and coaxing, Bill ultimately adopted the Oxford Group values as his own and put the drink down for good. But just witnessing the drastic change in his friend was almost all it took for Bill to become a changed man.

For Ebby, this meeting was a sharing of testimony. For Bill, it meant finally seeing the light through witnessing a man forever changed, and finding the strength to overcome addiction through someone else’s story. And for alcoholics everywhere, this heart-to-heart was the seed that would grow into one of the most transformative fellowships in the world: Alcoholics Anonymous.

Akron, Ohio: A Fertile Field for AA

After Bill and Ebby’s fateful encounter, the torch was passed and Bill spent the rest of his life sowing the seeds of personal freedom and sobriety in everyone he met. One such person was Dr. Bob Smith, an Akron surgeon, physician and hopeless alcoholic. Unsuccessfully treating addicted patients and unable to overcome his own affliction, the doctor was eager to learn how Bill managed to find sobriety. Together, Bill and Dr. Bob concluded that alcoholism was a disease, and after hearing Bill’s story of healing, Dr. Bob would soon discover his own recovery. Both men set to work to help the growing number of alcoholics checking in to Akron’s City Hospital, where one of their shared patients achieved sobriety. Along with this unnamed first survivor, Bill and Dr. Bob began Alcoholics Anonymous on June 10, 1935, the date of Dr. Bob’s last drink.  

The AA of Today

Bill and Dr. Bob’s early efforts in Akron inspired an entire network of AA meetings that have grown exponentially since the early ‘30s. Now more than 80 years old, Alcoholics Anonymous has helped 2.1 million people find satisfying lives without alcohol. Today, AA consists of approximately  114,000 groups and 170 countries across the globe, from the United States to Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

Alcohol, an All-American Assassin

While AA members can be found in all corners of the world, 1.3 million reside in the U.S. And in every state, the life-changing healing found in AA is needed now more than ever. Sadly, the statistics surrounding alcohol abuse in America are increasingly grim. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 15.1 million American adults age 18 and older had alcohol use disorder, with only 1.3 million receiving the treatment they needed from total recovery centers.

The fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States, alcohol claims the lives of nearly 88,000 Americans per year.

Challenging these grave numbers head-on, county-wide AA groups strive to ensure that fewer American autobiographies end with alcohol. In Ohio alone, Alcoholics Anonymous can be found in 19 counties and cities in the Greater Ohio area, from Cincinnati to Cleveland and everywhere in between. And with more than 3,288 alcohol-related deaths within four years in Ohio, AA is quickly becoming a necessary group for addiction recovery in the Buckeye State.

From Mustard Seed to Shade Tree for All

Years ago in Akron, Ohio, an enlightened Mr. Bill and Dr. Bob realized just how much spiritual support can grow from one alcoholic talking to another. As the two men formed the origins of today’s Alcoholics Anonymous, this conversation-based support became the transformative force of healing that defines the group to this day. Through sharing personal experiences with alcohol addiction, AA members can be honest with themselves and each other, and truly listen to everyone’s unique testimonies. This empathy leads to profound and lasting recovery for alcoholics everywhere. Because of a man named Bill, a dedicated Dr. Bob and an anonymous group helping others find sobriety, more stories of liberation and peace are changing the conversation on alcohol addiction. And it all started in Akron. 

Join the conversation at your local AA fellowship. You can attend an in-person community meeting near you or participate in an online meeting via email, chat, discussion forum or phone.