Previously, Here’s to Your Health has been tracking the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. It started in Zurich, Switzerland with Doctor Carl Jung and continues to spread exponentially throughout the world.
According to Jack Anderson’s Saturday Evening Post article of March 1, 1941 Dr. Robert H. Smith (Doctor Bob), was in dire financial straights because of his contributions to AA and the time he devoted free gratis to alcoholics. In the spring of 1941 Dr. Bob was about to turn 62, an age when other men were ready to settle back and begin to enjoy the fruits of their life’s work and it was evidently beginning to trouble him.
In a letter to Bill Wilson, Doctor Bob said, “Able to borrow from mother $1,200 to take off some of the pressure, but that cannot be repeated!” There was a cumulative effect of more and more AA members carrying the message to places besides Akron, Cleveland, and NY, it was also spreading throughout the Midwest to Toledo, OH, Detroit, MI, and Chicago, IL.
In the beginning, they had no hospital set-ups in those cities. Thus men who sobered up in Akron had returned home and were sending all their new prospects to be “fixed,” by Dr. Bob. While none of these effects was explosive, they were steady. In addition to putting a heavy load on Doc, they put too much strain on the facilities at Akron City Hospital. Perhaps it had been all right with the hospital administration and staff when only one or two drunks were being treated at a time. But a half a dozen at once was too much. There was a change of administration, and doctors grumbled about not having beds for their patients and then there was also the matter of money. As Bob put it later, “We owed so much money to City Hospital we were never able to pay it back.” A combination of space and money problems was probably the chief factor in the lessening of what had been four years of cooperation between Dr. Bob and the City Hospital administration. Dr. Bob was already using other hospitals and sanitariums such as Green Cross, Fair Oaks Villa, and People’s Hospital (now Akron General Medical Center) for treatment of alcoholics not to mention John and Elgie R., Wally and Annabelle G. also began taking drunks into their homes on a regular basis.
Wally and Annabelle started out in the morning reading from a Methodist publication called “The Upper Room,” and said the prayers. Annabelle, of course, mothered them all and stuck by them, and they generally stayed there a week. If they could, they would pay. If they couldn’t, Annabelle took them in anyway. Bill said he “Found it odd that Wally and Annabelle helped so many drunks while he and Lois didn’t have that many successes? Bill and Lois however continued to practice an hour of meditation together until his death, in 1971.
Thus AA began to spread from Akron to other Midwest cities and the same thing was happening simultaneously in New York as it spread to cities on the East Coast, such as Washington, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. AA arrived in Chicago from Akron in 1938. A year later, two doctors began guiding alcoholic patients to the small Chicago group.
These alcoholics included two women. One was Sylvia K. and later Dorothy M. It is interesting to note that while Chicago had three women out of perhaps a dozen members, there were none to speak of anywhere else. Sylvia and one other woman, who came in at the same time as her husband, stayed sober from then on. Helped by her secretary, Grace Cultice, Sylvia set up a phone service in her home. At the time of The Saturday Evening Post article, they rented a one-room office in the Loop, and Grace directed a stream of prospects to AA this was one of AA’s first service centers.
Neither Doctor Bob nor Sister Ignatia ever recorded the exact date they started talking about treating alcoholics at Akron’s St. Thomas Hospital. Their conversations about the subject got more serious as the situation deteriorated at City Hospital. Sister Ignatia said she could never understand why she must turn away one drunk on the verge of D.T.’s (delirium tremens), and admit another with a bashed-in head when both were sick and needed help. She recalled that Doctor Smith must have had this on his mind for some time.
There was a bad accident once where an intoxicated driver caused three or four automobiles to collide. They took some patients to City Hospital and some to St. Thomas and it seems to me I said to Doctor, “Isn’t it a pity someone can’t do something for these people before they get into a wreck like this?” Then one day, to my great surprise, Dr. Bob told me about his own drinking problem, he told me about his contact with the Oxford Group and how after attending their meetings, he found himself with the Bible in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other. Doctor related his providential meeting with Bill Wilson at Henrietta Seiberling’s home and gave me the résumé of all that had been accomplished between the years of 1935 and 1938. Sister remembered clearly the day when Dr. Bob came to St. Thomas after being told in no uncertain terms by another hospital to “seek refuge for his jittering patients elsewhere,” as Sister Ignatia put it. “I had never seen Doctor in a depressed mood before that Memorial Day. I thought Doctor was ill, but I soon learned the cause of his discouragement. Doctor explained his problem to me, but I was fearful to admit an alcoholic because just a short time before I had admitted an alcoholic on my own and asked him to promise me that he wouldn’t make any noise or give any trouble. The next morning, the night supervisor told me in unmistakable terms that the next time I admitted a DT, I had better be prepared to stay up all night and run around the corridors after him. Naturally I was pretty well intimidated after that and when doctor proposed admitting this alcoholic patient I was shaky inside.” But Doctor assured me he would see that the patient didn’t cause any trouble, so I consented to try it. “I was proud of myself the next morning and thankful I hadn’t heard any serious report from the night supervisor.” Then Doctor asked me, “Sister, would you mind putting my patient in a private room because some men will be here to visit him and they’d like to talk privately. I happened to think of the room where we used to prepare the patient’s flowers. I wasn’t even sure that a bed would go through the door, but it did, thank God. So we pushed the bed in there, and there the patient was, perfectly satisfied-because these men came and talked with him and made him forget about himself. I couldn’t believe they were all alcoholics, but they were and a fine lot of men, I checked with them later, and they all said yes, they were alcoholics. There must have been four or five of them and they timed their visits so they would not all be there at the same time.
“I was pretty well governed by whatever Doctor said as to the length of the stay and type of treatment. That was in August 1939. Dr. Bob could never remember just what policy St. Thomas had at that time for alcoholics, nor did he recall ever having asked. But between that day and the time he died, 4,800 alcoholics were admitted into St. Thomas under his care. Dr. Bob once told a story about Sister Ignatia and a fellow who was flown in for the “cure,” in a private plane. “Please pray for me,” he begged Sister Ignatia. “I will indeed,” she said. “But pray for yourself as well. There’s nothing God likes to hear more than a strange voice.”
Sister Ignatia gave each of her newly released patients a Sacred Heart medallion, which she asked them to return before they took the first drink. Sister would also occasionally give out St. Christopher medals as well, but tell the recipient not to drive to fast because God gets out after 50 miles an hour. Sister once said, “What could be more conducive to the regeneration of the whole person spiritually, mentally, and morally than five to seven days spent in an institution where the spiritual atmosphere prevails?”
“There was one thing that always irritated Doctor,” she said. “Some people who were on the program for a length of time would come up to him and say, “I don’t get the spiritual angle.” I heard him say time and again, “There’s no spiritual angle. It’s a spiritual program!” Sister also said, “Doctor visited the patients daily without salary until his health failed and when he shook his head and said, “Sister he just isn’t ready,” Doctor was always right.” I learned from experience that it was a waste of time to force anyone to accept the program. When Bob’s wife Anne died, in 1949, Sister wrote Bob a letter in which she recalled some of the experiences they had all had together.
On Christmas Eve, Bob replied with a characteristically short but eloquent note. “My dear Sister,” he said, “it is most fortunate for me that I have been blessed with the friendship of one so staunch and true as yourself. You have demonstrated in so many ways your love, loyalty, and kindness that I cannot even begin to thank you adequately. In a lifetime, one may meet one or two wonderful characters like you. So for my rare privilege of knowing you, I feel most humbly grateful. May God’s blessing be ever on you.
With a great deal of love, Dr. Bob Smith