The Mother of AA

As many of us in recovery know, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) were Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith (Dr. Bob). Until recently, I was not aware that Bill W. once referred to Dr. Bob’s wife, Anne Ripley Smith, as “the co-founder of AA.” On Wikipedia, she is referred to as a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

12 Step Recovery

According to the book, Women Pioneers in 12 Step Recovery, Anne Smith, a religious woman who prayed on a daily basis, was the one who picked up the phone that fateful day when another woman, Henrietta Sieberling called and told her of “a man who might help Bob with his drinking problem.”

Anne dragged her protesting husband over to Sieberling’s house to talk to the “man” (Bill W.).

The rest is AA history.

Besides being Dr. Bob’s wife, Smith’s ideas were a major inspiration towards the writing of 12-step literature. A graduate of Wellesley College and a former teacher, Smith attended Oxford Group meetings for two years prior to Dr. Bob’s becoming sober.  Smith wrote down Oxford Group dogma, along with her own interpretation of those beliefs, in a journal that was composed between 1933 and 1939. According to scholars, those ideas echo wording found in the Big Book and Twelve and Twelve.  One good example is, “We can’t give away what we haven’t got.” While Bill W. had attended Oxford Group meetings, Smith’s notes made an impact because she had put pen to paper.

Many AA members (mainly men) participated in a Quiet Time group that she held at home.  During Quiet Time, Smith and the group prayed, read the Bible, sought God’s guidance and consulted devotionals. Smith read excerpts from her journal, and following the reading there was a group discussion.

In her journal, Smith appears to make the connection between substance addiction and co-occurring disorders.  Under a page titled, Spiritual Diagnosis, she explains how people reveal their problems, by exhibiting nervousness, which often indicates the presence of inner conflict. Smith hinted that inner conflicts resulted from past, unresolved traumatic events.  Smith also mentioned a prominent psychologist (most likely Dr. Carl G. Jung) who emphasized the importance of “sharing.” Some people believed that sharing was dangerous but the psychologist stressed that the “danger of not sharing is much more serious than sharing.”  Smith added that AA worked in conjunction with leading psychiatrists in identifying psychopathic individuals who were potentially detrimental to AA members. These people were referred to medical professionals for proper care. Besides Biblical teachings and Oxford principles, other beliefs utilized during AA’s early days included those of Reverend Sam Shoemaker, author Emmet Fox, Christian Science and the philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Recently, I stumbled on an Emerson poem, Each and All. The last stanza reminds me of the day, when I was surrounded by nature, and I felt the sense of a Higher Power.

“I inhaled the violet’s breath; Around me stood the oaks and firs;

Pine-cones and acorns lay on the ground; Over me soared the eternal sky, Full of light and of deity; Again I saw, again I heard, The rolling river, the morning bird; — Beauty through my senses stole; I yielded myself to the perfect whole.”

While Anne Smith had a serious side, her children reported that she had a strong sense of humor. Apparently, Smith picked up smoking at the age of 56, and often she smoked a few puffs, and extinguished the cigarette, before lighting up another one.  When she discovered that her son Smitty picked up smoking, she became upset, and he said, “What about you, Mom? You smoke.”

Her response was, “Don’t say anything to me about smoking now. If you’re 50 years old before you start, I won’t say anything about you, either.”

Back then, many people were not aware of the dangers of smoking, but her actions reveal that she was all too human and stressed out. Dr. Bob’s drinking had taken a toll on her, and perhaps at that time, she found smoking to be of solace. Additionally, she was very active in AA.  She counseled many of the members’ wives, giving them hope in the face of despair, but perhaps she needed support, too.  Sadly, Anne Smith died at the age of 69, two years before Bill Wilson’s wife, Lois, founded Al-Anon.

Learning about Anne Smith confirms my belief that AA’s founders were open to new ideas about recovery. Chances were, that if Bill W., Dr. Bob and Anne Smith were alive today, they would be excited about clinical, evidence-based treatment for substance abuse and co-occurring disorders.

At Cycles of Change Recovery Services, we offer such treatment, along with 12-step facilitation, to help newly clean and sober addicts begin their recovery on the right track.

If you are struggling with chemical addiction, or if you are a family member of an addict who needs help, please call us.


Dick B. “Anne Ripley Smith, wife of Dr. Bob, Mother and Co-founder of AA.” Web. 12 April 2017

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Each and All.” Poetry Foundation. Web. 13 April  2017. <>

Hunter, Charlotte, Billye Jones, and Joan Zieger. Woman Pioneers in 12 Step Recovery.  Center City, Hazelden: 1999.

Cycles of Change Recovery Services Las Vegas Office