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Only Monument Is a Plaque, but the Thousands He Helped Rescue
From Alcoholism Will Never Forget Him.
kindly faced man lying in the white hospital bed raised
his hand to the light, studied it calmly and then remarked
to the nurse standing by his bed: “I think this is
Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith recently passed from the world.
So, finally, the story of “Dr. Bob, beloved by 120,000
members of Alcoholics Anonymous whom he had helped to find
the way back to respectability and happiness, can be told.
At the death of his wife, Anne, a year before, Dr. Smith’s
identity had been revealed, but the story of the co-founder
of A.A. remained a secret.
Dr. Bob was a boy in New England, 72 years ago, and his
mother sent him to bed at 5 o’clock every evening.
Just as regularly did he secretly arise, dress, and slip
out the back way to continue the game with his boyhood pals.
He learned early to revolt against authority.
When he went away to college he became a steady drinker.
He had always wanted to be a doctor but his strong willed
mother had always opposed it, and it was three years after
he graduated from Dartmouth before he got up the courage
to go to medical school. He drank so continuously he just
did manage to get his degree. Once he went off on such a
protracted binge that his fraternity brothers had to send
for his father to straighten him out.
All this time Bob was corresponding with Anne, his high
school sweetheart. That was as far as their courtship went.
With the exception of two hard working years as an intern,
he was seldom sober. Still, Anne, waiting for a miracle,
married no one else.
The miracle happened, apparently, after a year-long period
of heavy drinking left him terrified and on the wagon. In
1915 when he was 35 years old and some 17 years after he
had first met her, he married Anne and brought her to Akron
with him as his bride. They were happy for several years
– until the Eighteenth Amendment was passed.
The Grapevine, the official magazine of Alcoholics Anonymous,
explains in the weird logic of the alcoholic what happened
then. Dr. Bob figured that since he’d soon be unable
to get any more alcohol, he might as well drink up what
there was. Despite prohibition, he never found it difficult
to get more. From then on, he had a regular pattern. He
began drinking every afternoon at four. Every morning he’d
quite his tortured nerves with sedatives and, trembling,
go to work to make enough money to buy alcohol for four
went on for 15 years.
the meantime, a New York broker who had drunk himself out
of prominence discovered that when he was trying to talk
drunks into going on the wagon, he had less craving for
liquor. This broker, known to A.A.’s as Bill W., went
to Akron on a business deal in 1935. The deal fell through
and Bill found himself once more a failure, with only 2$
in his pocket. He knew right away that he had his choice:
find a drunk to talk to, or get drunk himself.
Fortunately, he found a drunk, Dr. Bob.
Bill moved in with Dr. Bob and straightened him out. When
he and Dr. Bob wanted a drink, they’d go out and find
a drunk to talk to. They sobered up a number of habitual
drinkers in Akron that way and then their fame began reaching
out to other cities. Slowly, gradually, the idea spread.
Almost before Dr. Bob and Bill, the co-founders, were aware
of it, Alcoholics Anonymous was a going concern.
The book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was written. It is now in
its 13th printing. People began to write in from all over
the world. Some were alcoholics themselves, some were mothers,
fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives or friends of
alcoholics. They all got an answer.
Dr. Bob, who had devoted half his life to drinking, still
found himself a slave to alcohol – only now it was
on the other fellow’s breath. He personally visited
some 5,000 alcoholics in Akron hospitals, encouraging them.
As his period of sobriety increased, more and more patients
came to him, and it looked as though one part of his ambition,
to own a convertible, might not be impossible after all.
Finally he made it. Last year he got a new yellow convertible.
The Grapevine pictures him, at the age of 71, speeding through
the streets of Akron in it….”the long slim lines
made even more rakish with the top down. No hat, his face
to the sun, into the driveway he sped. Pebbles flying, tires
screeching, he’d swoosh to a stop.”
And, just then, before he put 150 miles on the gleaming
yellow convertible, Dr. Bob’s malignant disease took
a turn for the worse and he had to give up driving. He died
a few months later.
Bill W. explained why there will be no imposing monument
to this man who saved so many people from alcoholism. When
it was once suggested last year, Dr. Bob said: “Annie
and I plan to be buried just like plain folks.”
And so only a simple plaque in the alcoholic ward of St.
Thomas Hospital in Akron, where Dr. Bob did so much of his
work, commemorates his work as co-founder of Alcoholics
The American Weekly, March 11, 1951)