The Alcoholic Stockbroker and the Forgotten Alcoholic Doctor

The relationship between Bill Wilson and his Alcoholics Anonymous cofounder, the unsung Dr. Bob Smith, shows that fellowship—not dogma—is at the heart of the 12 Steps.
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In the case of Alcoholics Anonymous, media continually cite Bill Wilson as the hero—the founder of the original 12-step program that has, arguably, done more than any other treatment to heal alcoholics and other addicts. Wilson always makes the fame lists—from Life magazine's "100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century" to New York Times columnist David Brooks' piece "Bill Wilson's Gospel"—but few make mention of Dr. Bob Smith. Biographies of Wilson are evergreen and sometimes excellent; there are no comparable biographies of Smith.

Smith was an Akron surgeon who, with Wilson, in one six-hour chance meeting in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, created Alcoholics Anonymous. Partly because of our culture's focus on "the great man," and the fact that Wilson was a sophisticated New York stockbroker and tireless self-promoter (described as "a man who could talk a dog off a meat wagon") while Smith was a humble, reserved rectal surgeon, Wilson gets almost all the credit. Smith is a kind of forgotten man. His story is no less harrowing and worth knowing.

In 1986, when we began researching material for a play about the relationship between the two men, the information on Smith was sparse. Only in Akron, when we met and made friends with Sue Windows, Smith's only daughter, did we begin to understand him. Sue and the other locals were delighted that in the play Smith and Wilson would be equals.

Smith's story of alcoholism was every bit as horrific as Wilson's. In his words, "I used pills and booze every day. I woke up in the morning with the jitters, took a sedative to steady my hands for surgery, started drinking again in the afternoon, needing to get drunk to sleep. Sometimes, in the operating room, I'd be high as a kite. Lucky I haven't killed somebody." And his eventual recovery was focused on humble "service"; without pay he treated over 5,000 alcoholics at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron.

As he put it his one of his last talks: "Even now I still think I could probably knock off a couple of scotches, but then I say to myself, 'Better get back on the job, big boy, better go see some of the drunks on the ward.' Giving of ourselves, our own effort, strength, and time—it takes practice, you know, to learn that spirit of service."

Yet AA is not about one man or the other. The essence of AA is that it is an and program—the fellowship and healing power arises in the meeting of the two. In Wilson's words, "I realized that no amount of willpower could keep me away from a drink. The only thing that could keep a drunk sober was telling his story to another drunk."

When Wilson and Smith met that night, each was facing death, trying to find a way to stay alive. We have come to think that the "other drunk" Wilson met that night in Akron had to be a doctor. When Smith hears Wilson say that his own physician in New York, William Silkworth, thought "alcoholic allergy" was "a disease," Smith lit up. A disease? With signs, symptoms, a course, and a progression? Implying what? A treatment? And so Smith recast their shared search for how to stay alive as finding a treatment, and AA was born.

They discovered that, just as in medical illness itself, in addiction there is a danger in isolation, and there is a healing in mutual connection. In fact, current medical research suggests that isolation has detrimental effects on the immune system, and connection may stimulate it—and this has relevance for treatments, such as for melanoma and other cancers.

Presented by

​Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey

Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey are the authors of the play Bill W. and Dr. Bob. Shem is also the author of The House of God.

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