Monday, October 31, 2011

Alcoholics Anonymous History: Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks

Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks

A Contemporary Perspective

Dick B.

© 2011 Anonymous. All rights reserved

An Introductory Look at Silkworth as One of A.A.’s “Co-founders”

William Duncan Silkworth, Jr., was born in Brooklyn on July 22, 1873. His family remembers him as a deeply spiritual man, not interested in any particular denomination. But he was, they said, a devout Christian. For many years, he attend Shoemaker’s Calvary Episcopal Church in New York.[1]

He matriculated at the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton University, and did pre-med studies there. Dale Mitchel, in his biography of Dr. Silkworth [Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks: The Biography of William Duncan Silkworth, M.D. (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2002)], said Silkworth was told quite early of the need for crisis, reform, and conversion when dealing with alcoholism.[2]

In his medical studies, he eventually specialized in neuropsychiatry. And at a time when Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were looking at varied approaches to spiritual healing of the mind, Silkworth was busy with medicine and neuropsychiatry. He graduated from Princeton in 1896. He sought and obtained an internship at Bellevue Hospital Medical College and received his medical degree in 1899. Bellevue was one of the only hospitals in the United States with a department that focused on alcoholism treatment. And Silkworth spent many years connected with many hospitals focused on treating alcoholics. He studied under and was tutored by a prestigious physician and professor named Dr. Alexander Lambert—a doctor who had been especially interested in narcotic addiction and treatment.[3] Finally, in the spring of 1929, Silkworth was hired as physician in charge of alcohol rehabilitation at Towns Hospital in New York. And it was at Towns that Silkworth became much involved with his patient, William Griffith Wilson.

Silkworth, a Spiritual Experience and Medical Treatment—His Foundation for Long-term Recovery: It Depended, He Said, on the Great Physician Jesus Christ

Throughout his medical career in dealing with alcoholic patients until his death in 1951, Silkworth—according to his biographer—had believed a spiritual experience and medical treatment formed the foundation for long-term recovery.[4] He spoke frequently about the need for reliance upon God and a firm foundation of spiritual strength in order to handle the obsession to drink.[5] In the beginning, the recovery success rate was less than 2 percent.[6]

When Bill Wilson entered Towns Hospital for treatment of his alcoholism in September 1934, he had already been there twice before for treatment. After each of the two prior hospital stays, he had wound up drunk. His wife Lois had all but given up hope of his getting sober.

A.A. literature has long stated that Dr. Silkworth told Bill and Lois during Bill's third stay at Towns that, if Bill didn't stop drinking, he would either die or go insane.[7] What only became publicly known a few years ago with the publication of Mitchel's biography of Silkworth is that Silkworth also told Bill that Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, could completely heal him.[8] And Bill understood that to mean that the Great Physician (Jesus Christ) could cure him of his alcoholism.[9] Silkworth told Bill how he had read about the successes of other spiritual transformations.[10] He also told Bill that, though he was a man of science, he was well aware of the success a spiritual conversion could have. They discussed how many have had to endure a great crisis in their lives before they are willing to accept any form of surrender or admission of a helping God.[11]

Silkworth used the term “the Great Physician” to explain the need in recovery for accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.[12] And in A.A.'s earliest days, Bill insisted on references to God and Jesus, as well as to the Great Physician.[13] Silkworth had told Bill and at least one other patient that the Great Physician could complete the healing.[14] He said, “His name is Jesus Christ.”[15]

The Early A.A. Big Book Solution: A Vital Spiritual Experience--A Conversion

I have several times told how Bill acted on Silkworth’s advice. First, Bill learned around late November 1934 that his old friend, Ebby Thacher, had just recently made a decision for Christ at Calvary Mission, the Gospel rescue mission run by Shoemaker's Calvary Church.[16] Bill decided that the Great Physician might be able to help him just as he had helped Ebby. Bill said he thought, “Yes if there was any great physician that could cure the alcohol sickness, I’d better seek him now, at once. I’d better find what my friend [Ebby Thacher] had found.”[17]

Bill went to Calvary Mission around December 7, 1934, made a decision to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior,[18] and later wrote that for sure he had been “born again.”[19] He decided to call on the Great Physician for help.[20] And he made his way drunk to Towns Hospital where he was admitted for treatment of his alcoholism for his fourth and final stay on December 11, 1934. At the hospital, Bill cried out: “If there be a God, let Him show Himself!”[21] He sensed the presence of God in his hospital room. He described a blazing, indescribably white light that had taken over the room.[22] He concluded, “So this is the God of the Scriptures. . . . I knew there was a God and I knew there was a grace.”[23]

And he never drank again. In fact, in A.A.’s own basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous (affectionately known as the “Big Book”), Bill wrote on page 191 of the fourth edition:

Henrietta, the Lord has been so wonderful to me, curing me of this terrible disease, that I just want to keep talking about it and telling people.[24]

Bill had—through Silkworth and through his own experience—found the solution to alcoholism. And this was this original solution that was set forth in his 1939 Big Book. A spiritual experience! Years later, Bill wrote the famous Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. Carl Jung, to tell him about the solution, to thank him, and to confirm that the spiritual experience he had discussed with his patient Rowland Hazard--who had helped Ebby Thacher get sober--had worked.

As he had done with Rev. Sam Shoemaker, Bill Wilson called Dr. Silkworth a “cofounder” of A.A. and confirmed many times that Silkworth was “very much a founder of A.A.”[25] He also said, “Perhaps no physician will ever give so much devoted attention to so many alcoholics as did Dr. Silkworth. It is estimated that in his lifetime he saw and amazing 40,000 of them.”[26]

The Silkworth Formula—The Essential Features of the New Approach

Silkworth’s biographer quotes Silkworth’s article titled “A New Approach to Psychotherapy to Chronic Alcoholism.”[27] In brief, Silkworth said:

1.      The ex-alcoholics capitalize upon a fact which they have so well demonstrated, namely: that one alcoholic can secure the confidence of another in a way and to a degree impossible of attainment by a non-alcoholic outsider.

2.      After having fully identified themselves with their “prospect” by a recital of symptoms, behavior, anecdotes, etc., these men allow the patient to draw the inference that if he is seriously alcoholic, there may be no hope for him save a spiritual experience.

3.      Once the patient agrees that he is powerless, he finds himself in a serious dilemma. He sees clearly that he must have a spiritual experience or be destroyed by alcohol.

4.      The dilemma brings about a crisis in the patient’s life. He finds himself in a situation which, he believes, cannot be untangled by human means. He has been placed in this position by another alcoholic who has recovered through a spiritual experience. Under these conditions, the patient returns to religion with an entire willingness and readily accepts a simple religious proposal. He is then able to acquire much more than a set of religious beliefs; he undergoes the profound mental and emotional change common to religious experience.

5.      The fellowship is entirely different concerning the individual manner of spiritual approach so long as the patient is willing to turn his life and his problems over to the care and direction of his Creator.

6.      The suggestion is made that he do certain things which are obviously good psychology, good morals and good religion, regardless of creed: (a) That he make a moral appraisal of himself, and confidentially discuss his findings with a competent person whom he trusts. (b) That he try to adjust bad personal relationships, setting right, so far as possible, such wrongs as he may have done in the past; (c) That he recommit himself daily, or hourly if need be, to God’s care and direction, asking for strength; (d) That, if possible, he attend weekly meetings of the fellowship and actively lend a hand with alcoholic newcomers.

Important Tributes

Reader’s Digest wrote of Silkworth a few months after his death.[28]

Dr. Silkworth was a great man who failed with all human science and was humble enough to use God for a medicine.

Dr. Bob said:

The Silkworth theory was what triggered him into a new way of life. Dr. Silkworth’s conversion ideas, as confirmed by William James, had struck him at great depth.[29]

Bill Wilson wrote:

We drunks can thank Almighty God that such a man was designated by the divine Providence to inspire and guide us, individually and as a group, on the long way back to sanity.[30]

Silkworth himself wrote:

Since I have been working with A.A. the comparative percentage of successful results has increased to an amazing extent.

The percentage of success that A.A. has scored leaves no doubt that it has something more than we as doctors can offer. It is, I am convinced, your second step. Once the A.A. alcoholic has grasped that, he will have no more “slips.”[31]           

[1] Dale Mitchel, Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2002), 3, 11-12,
[2] Mitchel, Silkworth, 10.
[3] Mitchel, Silkworth, 20.
[4] Mitchel, Silkworth, 33.
[5] Mitchel, Silkworth, 34.
[6] Mitchel, Silkworth, 180.
[7] See, for example, Mitchel, Silkworth, 47-48.
[8] Mitchel, Silkworth, 44, 49-51; Norman Vincent Peale, The Positive Power of Jesus Christ (Carmel, NY: Guideposts, 1980), 59-63.
[9] Mitchel, Silkworth, 44.
[10]  Mitchel, Silkworth, 49.
[11]  Mitchel, Silkworth, 49.
[12]  Mitchel, Silkworth, 50.
[13]  Mitchel, Silkworth, 50.
[14]  Peale, The Positive Power of Jesus Christ, 60.
[15]  Peale, 60; Mitchel, 51.
[16]  T. Willard Hunter, IT STARTED RIGHT THERE” Rev ed. (Claremont, CA: Ives Community Center, 2006), 6.
[17]  Bill W., My First 40 Years (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2000), 139.
[18] This was confirmed by Mrs. Samuel M. Shoemaker. See Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A., Pittsburg ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1999), 359. It was also specifically confirmed by Bill’s wife, Lois Wilson. Dick B., The Conversion of Bill W. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc.2006), 61, 94.
[19]  Bill W., My First 40 Years, 147.
[20]  Bill W., My First 40 Years, 145.
[21]  Bill W., My First 40 Years, 145.
[22]  Bill W., My First 40 Years, 145-146.
[23] The Language of the Heart: Bill W.’s Grapevine Writings (NY: The AA Grapevine, Inc., 1988), 284.
[24] Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., 2001, page 191.
[25] Mitchel, Silkworth, xv, 70, 107.
[26] Mitchel, Silkworth, 109.
[27] Mitchel, Silkworth, 158-161.
[28] Mitchel, Silkworth, 106.
[29] Mitchel, Silkworth, 106.
[30] Mitchel, Silkworth, 198.
[31] Mitchel, Silkworth, 192.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

16 Specific Practices Associated with the Original Akron A.A. "Christian Fellowship" Program

16 Specific Practices

Associated with the Original Akron A.A. “Christian Fellowship” Program

Bill W. and Dr. Bob Developed

© 2011 Anonymous. All rights reserved

The following practices, with the summary of the original program by Frank Amos in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers,[1]show why Albert Scott spoke on behalf of so many Rockefeller observers and characterized the program in this way: “Why, this is first century Christianity! What can we do to help?”[2] In reporting on the program itself, Frank Amos had said that “in many respects, their meetings have taken on the form of the meetings described in the Gospels of the early Christians during the first century.”[3] And there is certainly ample basis for such conclusions in the book of Acts. See Acts 2:38-47, 4:31-37, 10: 34-48, 17:1-4, 19:1-11

And here are 16 actual practices of the original Akron A.A. “Christian Fellowship” during the period from June 10, 1935, to the publishing of the First Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (the "Big Book") in April 1939:

1. Qualifying the newcomer. Newcomers—and often their wives—were interviewed by Dr. Bob (and other pioneer AAs) to determine: if they had conceded that they had an uncontrollable alcoholism problem; if they had shown a desire to quit permanently; and if they had committed themselves to go to any length to stay sober.[4]

2. Hospitalization was a must. Newcomers were hospitalized for a period of some five-to-seven days. They were medicated to prevent seizures and other problems. During this time, Dr. Bob would visit extensively each day, other sober alcoholics would tell the newcomer their stories, the Bible was the only reading material allowed, and Dr. Bob would offer the newcomer the opportunity to "surrender" before release.[5]

3. “Surrender” by the newcomer before discharge after his five-to-seven-day stay at the hospital. Before the newcomer was discharged from the hospital, Dr. Bob would conduct his final visit and require that the newcomer profess a belief in God—not “a” God, but God.[6] Then the newcomer would get out of his bed, get down on his knees, and pray with Dr. Bob, accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior in the process.[7]

4. Upon leaving the hospital, in the case of Clarence Snyder at least, Clarence was taken to his first Oxford Group meeting at T. Henry’s house, given a Bible by Dr. Bob, and told by Dr. Bob to “go out and fix drunks as an avocation.”[8] This practice of telling the newcomer, at the time he surrendered to God, that he must go out and help other drunks was consistent from the very first.

5. Most went to live in the Smith residence or in the residences of other Akron people like Wally G. and Tom L. They stayed as long as needed in order to get steady in their path.[9]

6. There were Christian fellowship meetings every day, with Dr. Bob, Anne, and Henrietta Seiberling. These included group Bible study, prayer, and Quiet Time observances.[10]

7. In addition, each morning, alcoholics and their family members gathered at the Smith home for a Quiet Time conducted by Anne, with prayer, Bible reading, seeking guidance, and discussion of portions of Anne’s personal journal.[11]

8. There was one “Oxford Group” meeting each Wednesday at the home of T. Henry Williams—a meeting unlike any other Oxford Group meeting. These meetings scarcely resembled conventional Oxford Group meetings. Oldtimers Wally and Annabelle G. said they had read a lot about the Oxford Group meetings being held at the Mayflower [in 1933] but that “it wasn’t until later that they realized the meeting at T. Henry’s was 'sort of a clandestine lodge of the Oxford Group.'”[12] Dorothy S. M., wife of Dr. Bob's sponsee, Clarence S., observed in 1937 that the meeting was “a regular old fashioned prayer meeting.”[13] Dr. Bob’s son, Robert R. (“Smitty”) Smith, in a telephone conversation with me from his home in Nocona, Texas, described the meetings as “old fashioned revival meetings.”[14] Author Nan Robertson quoted Dr. Bob's son, Smitty, as follows: “It was kind of like an old fashioned revival meeting.”[15] Some called the group itself “the alcoholic squad.”[16] Oxford Group activist Willard Hunter called the group the “alcohol squad of the Oxford Group.” Frank Amos referred to the group as the “self-styled Alcoholic Group of Akron, Ohio.”[17] Dr. Bob called the group a “Christian Fellowship.”[18] Frank Amos declared, “Members did not want the movement connected directly or indirectly with any religious movement or cult; they stressed the point that they had no connection whatever with any so-called orthodox religious denomination, or with the Oxford Movement. (Obviously, Amos meant the Oxford Group).”[19] Bob E. stated:

Dr. Bob and T. Henry “teamed” the meeting; T. Henry took care of the prayers with which the meeting was opened and closed. “There were only a half dozen in the Oxford Group. We [the alcoholics] had more than that. Sometimes, we’d go downstairs and have our meeting, and the Oxford Group would have theirs in the sitting room.”[20]

9.  The “real surrender” by each newcomer at a “regular” meeting on Wednesday. And at these weekly meetings, there was a time in which newcomers were required to make a “real surrender” with Dr. Bob and one or two others upstairs. There the newcomer, on his knees, accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, asked that alcohol be taken out of his life, and asked strength and guidance to live according to cardinal Christian teachings. The elders prayed with him after the manner of James 5:16.[21]

10 There was extensive reading of Christian devotionals and literature provided by Dr. Bob, or recommended by Dr. Bob or his wife, and/or distributed or made available at meetings.[22]

11. There was particular stress on study of the Book of James, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and 1 Corinthians 13.[23]

12. Meetings concluded with invitations to reach out to newcomers in the hospital and elsewhere, and then closed with the Lord’s Prayer.[24]

13. There was frequent socializing in the homes, particularly on Saturday evenings.[25]

14. The little group of members and wives knew each other well. They frequently phoned one another. They frequently visited the homes of each other. They gathered for parties, dances, covered-dish suppers, and picnics. They prayed together. And they frequently had meals together.[26]

15. Keeping track of names, addresses, phone numbers, and sobriety information about each member was commonplace as evidenced by their address books and rosters. They kept little address books with the names, phone numbers, and street addresses of the pioneers. Also, this data was listed on some of the rosters which they kept and which are discussed next.[27]

16. The easy to find, extant rosters they kept, make it equally simple today to name and document the successes, relapses and returns, and failures among the original AAs. Particularly evidenced by the hand-written memo and roster kept by Dr. Bob and on file in the Rockefeller Archives today. Other rosters of the names and addresses, sobriety dates, and relapses, if any, were kept and still exist today. Richard K. of Massachusetts—author of four major works on early A.A. history, including studies of the “First 40” cures, about early articles about A.A., and about statistics relating to A.A.—has discussed these rosters.[28] Richard spent several months with me in Maui reviewing the rosters and materials I had, as well as materials he obtained from A.A. General Services in New York and elsewhere. He carefully examined photocopies of original documents, newspaper accounts, and extant lists of the early A.A. members and their sobriety records. His work is the most important study of early A.A. successes, cures, and announcements written to date. There are also my own copies of the pioneer member rosters which were acquired by me from several A.A. historians such as Earl Husband, George Trotter, Sue Smith Windows (Dr. Bob’s daughter), and Ray Grumney (former long-time archivist and member of the managing board at Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron). Their value became particularly valuable when other evidence was reviewed and clearly disclosed that early AAs commonly kept address books—many of which contained names, addresses, phone numbers, sobriety information, and relapse and death notations. As a group, these rosters enable an accurate evaluation of the successes of the original 40 pioneers surveyed by Bill W. and Dr. Bob in November 1937. And they provide important evidence relating to the 75% and 93% successes rates (overall, and in Cleveland, respectively) early A.A. claimed. Recently, an anonymous friend from New Jersey supplied me with a copy of a roster in Dr. Bob’s own hand, written on his medical office stationary, and listing all the successful original members, giving names, drinking history, relapses if any, sobriety dates, and age. It came from the Rockefeller Archives in New York. I now possess one I secured from those archives. It is a vital, new piece of evidence apparently unknown to those who have disputed the early A.A. successes or temporized about the reason for them.


[1]      DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 135.
[2]     “Pass It On,” 183.
[3]      DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 135-136.
[4]     DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 109, 110, 112, 168, 195.
[5]     DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 102, 168.
[6]     See Mitchell K., How It Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio (Washingtonville, NY: AA Big Book Study Group, 1999), 57. Clarence Snyder specifically related that Dr. Bob “pointed a long bony finger at him, and asked, ‘Young feller, do you believe in God? Not a God, but God!’”
[7]     See Mitchell K., How It Worked, 58.
[8]     Dick B., That Amazing Grace: The Role of Clarence and Grace S. in Alcoholics Anonymous (San Rafael, CA: Paradise Research Publications, 1996), 26.
[9]     DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 115-16, 177-80, 182; see also: Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 10-11, 19, 22, 24; Nell Wing, Grateful to Have Been There, 81; and Dick B., The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, 181-215.
[10]    The Co-Founders, 13.
[11]    See Bob Smith and Sue Smith Windows, Children of the Healer: The Story of Dr. Bob’s Kids (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1992), 41, 29, 42-44; and Dick B., The Akron Genesis of Alcoholic Anonymous, 62-63, 109-10, 202-08
[12]    DR, BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 121.
[13]    DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 121, 101.
[14]    Dick B., The Good Book-Big Book Guidebook (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2006), 66.
[15]    Nan Robertson, Getting Better Inside Alcoholics Anonymous (NY: Fawcett Crest, 1988), 50.
[16]    DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 100, 137.
[17]    DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 128.
[18]    DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 118.
[19]    DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 135.
[20]    DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 142.
[21]    DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 88-89, 139; Mitchell K., How It Worked, 70; and Dick B., The Golden Text of A.A.: God, the Pioneers, and Real Spirituality (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1999), 31-32.
[22]    Dick B., The Books Early AAs Read for Spiritual Growth, 7th ed.; Dick B., Dr. Bob and His Library, 3rd ed.; and Dick B., Good Morning!: Quiet Time, Morning Watch, Meditation, and Early A.A., 2d ed.
[23]    The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches Their Last Major Talks (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1972, 1975), 13.
[24]    DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 121, 131, 141, 146-48.
[25]    These first 14 points are discussed in many books by Dick B. and others. One of the most recent and complete discussions is in Dick B., Real Twelve Step Fellowship History, 6-13. See also Dick B., Introduction to the Sources and Founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2007), 15-23; Dick B., When Early AAs Were Cured and Why, 3rd ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications Inc., 2006); Dick B., The Golden Text of A.A.: God, the Pioneers, and Real Spirituality (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2000); Dick B., The James Club and the Original A.A. Program’s Absolute Essentials. 4th ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2005); and Dick B., The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, Newton ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1998). See also: Mary C. Darrah, Sister Ignatia: Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1992); Mitchell K., How It Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio (Washingtonville, NY: AA Big Book Study Group, 1999); DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers; and The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches Their Last Major Talks (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1972, 1975).
[26]   DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 145-48.
[27]    There are specific discussions of these early address books.  For example, Henrietta D., wife of A.A. Number Three, said, “They handed out little address books with everybody’s name in it. . . . the ones who had phone numbers, there they were. And when they said, ‘Drop in on us—anytime,’ they meant it.” A.A.’s biography of Dr. Bob states, “the telephone played an important role in A.A. from the beginning. Alex M., who came into A.A. in 1939, recalled, 'Bob E. made up little address books [as did Elgie R. and others afterward,] and every one of us got one.'” DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, 145-46. The author, Dick B., has and displays copies of the pages from Anne Smith’s address book, containing the addresses of early AAs. They are shown at Christian recovery conferences.
[28]    (1) Richard K., A New Light: "The First Forty": A Chronological Survey of the Early AA Pioneers (1934-1938) (Haverhill, MA: Golden Text Productions, 2003)--now included in New Freedom–cited below); (2) Richard K., So You Think Drunks Can't Be Cured? Press Releases by Witnesses to the Cure (Haverhill, MA: Golden Text Publishing Company, 2003); (3) Richard K., Early AA: Separating Fact from Fiction: How Revisionists Have Led Our History Astray (Haverhill, MA: Golden Text Publishing Company, 2003); and (4) Richard K., New Freedom: Reclaiming Alcoholics Anonymous (n.p.: n.p., 2005–marked "Manuscript Submitted for Inspection: Loan Copy")