Big Book Study Notes

The majority of these study notes give historical background. You can use the headings below to jump to the chapter you are looking to study.

If you have notes that you feel would be suitable for this guide, please email them to the ECLO at


p. xi

'has been kept intact'

However, in the first edition of the Big Book, "The Doctor's Opinion" was moved from page one into the roman numerals section. Moving this to its own section was to reflect the fact that this is a doctor's opinion, not the opinion of AA itself.

Foreword to the First Edition

p. xiii

'more than one hundred men and women'

There were a total of 74 members from 1935 through 1938 as the original manuscript went to press. 41 were known to have achieved permanent sobriety. This slight "alcoholic exaggeration," may be accounted for if the wives were counted also. Florence Rankin, the first woman to achieve a considerable period of sobriety, and the only woman sober at that time, went back to the bottle and died an apparent suicide in 1939.

In Bill's Texas speech (1954) says himself that there were about 40.

p. xiv

'an honest desire to stop drinking''

Here we see the germ of the Twelve Traditions. In Tradition 3, the word "honest" was not carried over. It is believed that this is because only the indivudal can determine whether or not they are being honest.

Foreword to the Second Edition

p. xvi

'all the tenets of the Oxford Groups'

There were a number of core principles of the Oxford Groups.

The Five C's;


The Four Absolutes—a summary of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount;

Absolute honesty
Absolute purity
Absolute unselfishness
Absolute love

The Five Procedures

Give in to God
Listen to God's direction
Check guidance
Sharing for witness and for confession

p. xvii

'Their very first case'

The very first case that Bill and Bob worked on was Eddie R. They were not successful with Eddie. He was from a prominent Youngstown, Ohio, family, had lost his rented house and was about to lose his job. At Doctor Bob's funeral in 1950, Eddie R. was there with one year of sobriety.

The first successful case was Bill D., AA member number three. Bill D's sobriety date was June 26, 1935, 16 days after Dr Bob's. His story is "Alcoholic Anonymous Number Three".

p. xvii

'from the title of its own book.'

The fellowship gets its name from the book, not the other way round. Many other titles were considered including ‘The Way Out’. ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ comes from their tendency in New York to call themselves ‘a nameless bunch of drunks’.

Another name that was considered was "One Hundred Men" but a woman named Florence R. who was instrumental in starting the Washington group put pay to that. "Her story appeared in the first edition. After a second unfortunate marriage she started drinking again and disappeared. Her body was found in the Washington morgue." (Lois Remembers, p. 107)

Florence R. was the first woman to get sober in New York. Her story, "A Feminine Victory" appeared in the first edition of the Big Book.

Other titles that were considered include 'The Wilson Movement', 'Dry Frontiers' and 'The Empty Glass'. (Lois Remembers, p. 114)

Florence Ranking
Florence Rankin

p. xvii

'Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the noted clergyman, reviewed it with approval.'

This review can be read by clicking here.

p. xviii

'printed a piece in his magazine, called "Alcoholics and God."'

This article can be read by clicking here.

p. xviii

'pamphlets and books were sent out.'

These were likely to have been Oxford Group tracts.

p. xviii

'John D. Rockefeller, Jr. gave a dinner'

This was a dinner aimed at fundraising for our fledgling society. This dinner was a crucial moment in AA history where the early pioneers learnt the principle of corporate poverty from one of the richest men in America.

"Mr. Rockefeller himself had been taken ill suddenly and could not come. His son, Nelson, whom we liked immensely, did the honours as chairman for the occasion. I was seated between Dr. Blaisdell and Nelson Rockefeller. Directly in front of me was Wendell Willkie. The dinner was squab on toast. For a bunch of ex-drunks, we were doing remarkably well. We wondered how Mr. Rockefeller had dared to go so far out on a limb for an obscure and struggling fellowship of alcoholics.

"After dinner Mr Nelson. Rockefeller rose to his feet. He expressed his father's regret for being unable to attend. He told how deeply Mr. John D., Jr., had been affected by his experience with this society of Alcoholics Anonymous. Promising a highly interesting evening, Nelson Rockefeller began to introduce the speakers. Dr. Fosdick gave us a most wonderful testimonial and expressed complete confidence in our future. Dr. Kennedy warmly endorsed us and read a letter of protest he had written to the Journal of the American Medical Association because in their review of the book Alcoholics Anonymous they had somewhat ridiculed us. Dr. Bob spoke briefly, and I gave a rapid account of my own experience as a drinker, my recovery, and the subsequent history of our fellowship. As we watched the faces of the guests, it was evident that we had captured their sympathetic interest. Great influence and great wealth were soon to be at our disposal. Weariness and worry were to be things of the past.

"Finally the big moment came. Mr. Nelson Rockefeller, visibly moved, got to his feet once more. On behalf of his father he thanked us all for coming. He reiterated that few more affecting things than Alcoholics Anonymous had ever crossed his father's life. His father would be delighted, Nelson said, to know how many guests had availed themselves of the chance to see the beginnings of this most promising adventure of Alcoholics Anonymous.

"Breathlessly we waited for the climax–the matter of money. Nelson Rockefeller obliged us. Continuing, he said, "Gentlemen, you can all see that this is a work of good will. Its power lies in the fact that one member carries the good message to the next, without any thought of financial income or reward. Therefore, it is our belief that Alcoholics Anonymous should be self-supporting so far as money is concerned. It needs only our good will." Whereupon the guests clapped lustily, and after cordial handshakes and good-byes all around, the whole billion dollars' worth of them walked out the door."

(Alcoholics Anonymous Come of Age, p. 182 - 183)

p. xviii

'Then Jack Alexander wrote a feature article'

You can read this article by clicking here.

The Doctor's Opinion

Dr. William Duncan Silkworth
Dr. William Duncan Silkworth (1872 - 1951)
Towns Hospital New York
Towns Hospital New York.

p. xxvii

'moral psychology'

Moral psychology is a field of study in both philosophy and psychology. Some use the term "moral psychology" relatively narrowly to refer to the study of moral development. However, others tend to use the term more broadly to include any topics at the intersection of ethics and psychology and philosophy of mind. Some of the main topics of the field are moral judgement, moral reasoning, moral responsibility, moral development, moral character (especially as related to virtue ethics), altruism, psychological egoism, moral luck and moral disagreement.

p xxviii

'We believe, and so suggested a few years ago...'

This does not refer to the article in the Lancet Journal as often thought. Here Silkworth is referring to his paper in the Medical Record in April 1937. Click here to read the article.

p. xxxi

'a man was brought in to be treated for chronic alcoholism.'

This refers to Hank P. His story was printed in the first edition of the Big Book titled The Unbeliever. Click here to read the story. Hank was a high pressure kind of guy. He was called a "promoter among promoters". Hank had worked for Standard Oil of New Jersey. He was the second member in New York and was instrumental in the publishing of the Big Book. Hank wrote the chapter To Employers. He subsequently relapsed in September 1939 and never again gained any degree of sobriety. 

p. xxxi

'The patient had made his own diagnosis'

This refers to John Henry Fitzhugh M. His story is in all editions of the Big Book titled "Our Southern Friend". Fitz (as he was commonly called) was from Hancock, Missouri and got sober in November 1935. He was twelve stepped by Bill W. from Towns Hospital and was considered AA number three in New York. He attended the Rockefeller dinner given on February 8th, 1940 in New York.

Advertisement for Towns Hospital.

Chapter 1 - Bill's Story

Bill as an army officer
Bill as an army officer

p. 1 

'took us to their homes'

This is in New Bedford, MA. As a young officer he was invited into higher social circles. This made Bill feel fearful and self-conscious (Pass It On p. 56). It was in New Bedford in the home of the Grinnells that at 21 Bill took his first drink. He drank heavily from the start but so did many others. Drinking helped him to feel 'part of'.

p. 1

'the prejudices of my people'

There was alcoholism in the Wilson family.

p. 1

'Much moved'

This is an understatement. Bill was deeply changed by his experience in the cathedral (Pass It On p. 60).

From Lois Remembers, p. 25

"Soon after his arrival in Southampton, Bill wrote me also about an experience he had in Winchester Cathedral. He was feeling depressed and lonely, fearful of what lay ahead; but upon entering the cathedral, its atmosphere seemed to take possession of him, and he was lifted up into a sort of ecstasy. Although he was not a conscious believer in God at the time, he felt a mighty assurance that things were all right and would continue to be.

In a daze, he strolled out into the churchyard. Suddenly head brought down to earth by the name on a headstone, Thomas Thatcher. Perhaps an ancestor of his good friend Ebby T. Had been buried there. Bill smiled broadly as he read part of the epitaph:

“Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death Drinking cold small beer.
A good soldier is ne’er forgot
Whether he dieth by musket
Or by pot.”

His mood was changed, but the effect of the uplifting experience at the cathedral clung to him ever after."

p. 1

“Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death Drinking cold small beer.
A good soldier is ne’er forgot
Whether he dieth by musket
Or by pot.”

The tombstone actually reads:

"Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier,
Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer.
Soldiers, be wise from his untimely fall,
And when yere hot, drink Strong or none at all.
An honest Soldier is never forgot,
Whether he die by Musket or by Pot'" 

p. 1

'had not the men of my battery given me a special token of appreciation?'

From Lois remembers - 

"Upon leaving France the men of his battery paid him special honour. His letter of January 3, 1919, read: "Quite a touching thing happened yesterday. The men presented Captain Sackville and me each with a watch, chain, and ring. The whole battery was lined up, and I tell you it was equal to promotion and decoration by J.J.Pershing himself!"

p. 1

'My talent for leadership'

"I had been made a corporal or a sergeant in the corps," Bill said, "and then it was discovered that I had talent for instructing people. Curiously enough, though awkward myself, I had a talent for drilling people."

(Pass It On p. 52)

Bill was successful in the army as a second lieutenant. He was fast tracked. 

p. 2

'I took a night law course'

Brooklyn Law School classes at the time were held in the offices of the Heffley School of Commerce in the historic Brooklyn Eagle (old newspaper) Building.

This was located less than half a mile from Bill and Lois's home at 182 Clinton Street. Bill would walk to the Law School.

He studied for several years but never picked up his diploma.

p. 2

'a surety company.'

United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company. He investigated fraud and embezzlement. 

p. 2

'like a boomerang'

An unusual reference for an American but when Bill was just a teenager, someone gave him a boomerang as a gift. They also told him that this boomerang came from the Australian continent and no one in America knew how to make one.

Young Bill saw this as a challenge and went to work on making one himself. It took him many months and dozens tries but he finally succeeded. We don’t know for sure but he may have been the first American to accomplish this. Even if he wasn’t, he must have been a very clever young man.

p. 2


About £14,500 in today's money (2023).

Bill and Lois on their motorcycle
Bill and Lois on their motorcycle.

p. 2

'off we roared'

Lois was eager to take this unusual trip with Bill as she hoped that by getting Bill away from New York he would reduce his drinking. This he did to the point that Lois felt that he would not drink much in the future.

p. 3

'worked on a farm for a month'

This was from mid April – mid May 1925. They worked on the Goldfoot family dairy farm in Scotia, New York near Schenectady. Mr. Goldfoot's two sons worked for General Electric.

p. 4

'a friend in Montreal.'

Richard O. "Dick" Johnson of Greenshields and Company, a medium sized brokerage firm in Montreal. (November 1929)

p. 4

'my wife's parents.'

Doctor Clark Burnham -

Born in Lancaster, PA the middle child of ten children. His father, Nathan Clark Burnham, practiced both law and medicine and was a minister in the Swedenborgian Church. Clark graduated from Franklin and Marshall College with honours and studied medicine at the Hahnemann School of Medicine in Pennsylvania. His specialty was genecology.

Matilda Hoyt Burnham (Spelman) -

Her parents were Congregationalists and Lutherans. Her cousin Laura Spelman was married to John D. Rockefeller Sr.. Clark was invited to her "coming out" party. They married in 1888.

p. 7

'My brother-in-law'

Doctor Leonard V. Strong Jr, the husband of Bill's younger sister Dorothy. Dr Strong attended the Rockefeller Dinner, February 8, 1940. He was one of the first trustees on the first board of the Alcoholic Foundation in April 1938. He died April 24, 1989. Leonard and Dorothy are both buried in the East Dorset Cemetery only 150 feet from the Wilson Family plot.

p. 7

'nationally-known hospital'

Charles B. Towns Hospital located at 293 Central Park West, New York, New York. Established in Manhattan in 1917.

p. 7

'belladonna treatment'

Belladonna is the name of a poisonous Eurasian perennial herb whose alkaloid extract or tincture was used as a sedative-antispasmodic drug in the early treatment of alcoholism. It is also known as "Deadly Nightshade."

p. 7

'a kind doctor'

Dr William Duncan Silkworth. "Silky" was chief physician and psychologist at Towns Hospital. Graduated Princeton University in 1896 and from New York University, Bellevue Medical School in 1900. He arrived at Towns hospital in 1930 with his theory on alcoholism as a combination physical allergy and compulsion to drink. He used a holistic approach to treating disorders. Author of "The Doctors Opinion" in the big book. He attended the Rockefeller Dinner on February 8, 1940.

p. 7

'wet brain'

Wet brain is a form of brain damage. Wet brain is also called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, Korsakoff's psychosis, Wernicke's encephalopathy, and beri beri. The symptoms of wet brain may sometimes improve with therapy but it is often permanent and irreversible.

Wet brain is caused by a deficiency of thiamine which is also known as vitamin B1. Chronic, heavy alcohol consumption can lead to a thiamine deficiency which can then lead to wet brain. This is because alcohol interferes with the absorption of thiamine. Wet brain can also occur in people who have never consumed alcohol. A diet of nothing but polished rice can cause wet brain because of the lack of thiamine in the diet. Wet brain can also be brought on by periods of vomiting which last for several days such as might result from severe morning sickness or bulimia.

Wet brain is not caused by alcohol killing brain cells. A study by Jensen and Pakkenberg suggests that chronic heavy drinking does not result in the loss of grey matter–the thinking part of the brain–although it can result in the loss of white matter. The exact nature of the impact of chronic heavy drinking on cognitive abilities in well nourished individuals remains something of a matter of dispute. 

Wet brain is not a case of gradual brain damage occurring over time–wet brain has a sudden onset and is often brought on by a sudden large dose of glucose in an individual suffering from a severe thiamine deficiency. It is generally agreed that wet brain occurs in two stages. The first stage of wet brain is Wernicke's encephalopathy which results from a severe thiamine deficiency and which may be precipitated by a sudden influx of glucose. If Wernicke's encephalopathy is immediately treated with thiamine injections it can be completely reversed and the patient can return to normal. If the Wernicke's encephalopathy goes untreated then it will progress to the second stage of wet brain which is known as Korsakoff's psychosis. Korsakoff's psychosis is not reversible although it can be improved somewhat through treatment.


p. 8

'on Armistace Day 1934, I was off again.'

Bill had been going to Statten Island to play some golf. He met a man on the bus. The bus then had an accident right outside a speakeasy. They went inside. Bill didn't drink and explained his mental obsession to his new friend. A replacement bus came and took them to the end of the line where they decided to eat lunch together in a bar. The barman gave them both a drink on the house as it was Armistice Day and without a thought Bill drank it. His friend was astonished and called him crazy. ‘That's exactly that I am’, replied Bill.

p. 8

'an old school friend'

Ebby. Bill hadn't seen him since they'd "opened" Manchester airport five years ago. More on that story below.

p. 9

'we had chartered an airplane'

"Bill, whose version of the story had them both partying all night, remembered that they paid the pilot a stiff fee to take them to Vermont. He had been reluctant to take off, probably because of bad weather. A new landing field was being built at Manchester, but no planes had yet landed. "We called Manchester to tell the folks we would be the first arrivals," Bill said. "I vaguely remember spotting the town of Bennington through the haze. The excited citizens of Manchester had got together a welcoming committee. The town band had turned out. The town delegation was headed by Mrs. Orvis, a rather stately and dignified lady, who at that time owned the famous Equinox House.

"We circled the field. But meantime all three of us had been pulling at a bottle. Somehow, we lit on the pretty bumpy meadow. The delegation charged forward. It was up to Ebby and me to do something, but we could do absolutely nothing. We somehow slid out of the cockpit, fell on the ground, and there we lay, immobile. Such was the history-making episode of the first airplane flight ever to light at Manchester, Vermont,"

(Pass It On, p. 84)

"Whenever his work took him near Albany, Bill would stop in to see his old friend Ebby, and they always got drunk together. On one of these sprees a brilliant idea hit them. Ebby had heard that a new airfield was about to be opened by the a Equinox House in Manchester, Vermont. They hired a plane, wired the time of arrival to Mrs. Orvis, owner of the hotel, and stocked up well for the flight. 

This was a gala day for Manchester. 

Mrs. Orvis called out the band to greet the first plane to arrive at the new airport and the town fathers all gathered at the airfield. The plane flew in; the band played lustily; the welcoming committee got on the ready; and Bill and Ebby stepped down from the plane and fell flat on their faces, dead drunk."

(Lois Remembers, p. 76-77)

p. 9

'two man had appeared in court'

These two men were Rowland Hazard and Cebra G., both were from the Oxford Group at the time. Rowland was never a member of AA. Cebra later joined AA while living in France.

Rowland Hazard
Rowland Hazard

p. 9

'suspend his commitment.'

He'd been arrested a number of times before. So this time (he was arrested for shooting pigeons off the roof of the family home with a shotgun!) it looked like a custodial sentence. This wasn't the first time he'd met Rowland and Cebra, both were active in the Oxford Group so were sympathetic enough to help.

p. 13

There is some argument about whether Bill took the steps himself or not. Although the way he took them and speed with which he took them may be unfamiliar to us today, page thirteen demonstrates that he took the steps while in Towns Hospital.

'There I humbly offered myself to God' – step 3

'I ruthlessly faced my since and became willing to have my new-found Friend take them away, root and branch' – steps 6 and 7

'I fully acquainted him with my problems and deficiencies' – step 5

'We made a list of people I had hurt or toward whom I felt resentment.' – steps 4 and 8

'I expressed my entire willingness to approach these individuals, admitting my wrong.' – steps 8 and 9

'I was to test my thinking by the new God-consciousness within.' – steps 10 and 11

'usefulness to others' – step 12

p. 14

'There was a sense of victory, followed by such a peace and serenity as I had ever known.'

This event had a profound impact on Bill. He was often teased by fellow AAs for his 'hot flash'. 

"What happened next was electric. "Suddenly, my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison. The light, the ecstasy – I was conscious of nothing else for a time.

"Then, seen in the mind's eye, there was a mountain. I stood upon its summit, where a great wind blew. A wind, not of air, but of spirit. In great, clean strength, it blew right through me. Then came the blazing thought 'You are a free man.' I know not at all how long I remained in this state, but finally the light and the ecstasy subsided. I again saw the wall of my room. As I became more quiet, a great peace stole over me, and this was accompanied by a sensation diffiuclt to describe. I became acutely conscious of a Presence which seemed like a veritable sea of living spirit. I lay on the shores of a new world. 'This,' I thought, 'must be the great reality. The God of the preachers.'

"Savouring my new world, I remained in this state for a long time. I seemed to be possessed by the absolute, and the curious conviction deepened that no matter how wrong things seemed to be, there could be no question of the ultimate rightness of God's universe. For the first time, I felt that I really belonged. I knew that I was loved and could love in return. I thanked my God, who had given me a glimpse of His absolute self. Even though a pilgrim upon an uncertain highway, I need be concerned no more, for I had glimpsed the great beyond."

(Pass It On, p. 121)

p. 15

'In one western city'

Cleveland, Ohio

p. 16

'One poor chap'

This was Bill C. He was a "guest" for nearly a year. He was a lawyer and gambler (professional bridge player). This happened in the summer of 1936 at their home at 182 Clinton St. Upon returning home from visiting Fitz M. and others in Maryland, Bill opened the door to the strong smell of the natural gas that had ended the "poor chaps" life. Over the next few months, Bill and Lois discovered that he had been selling off all of their good dress clothes to finance his drinking and gambling. Bill referred to the suicide as an example of literally "killing people with kindness."

See Pass It On, p. 165-166 and Lois Remembers, p. 105 for more details.

First Draft

The first draft Bill wrote was titled The Strange Obsession. While clearly unfinished, it gives an insight into Bill's writing process. For a man who had spent his life writing dry financial reports, Bill's attempt to write in the first person is both dramatic and engaging. Bill stops at the point where he begins explaining the physical malady. It is thought that Bill stopped here as he realised that this medical explanation was perhaps best suited to its own chapter (William A. Schaberg, Writing the Big Book, 2019).

Second Draft

Bill's second draft extended to almost 12,000 words, far beyond the target limit of 5,000. Schaberg writes, "Despite this inordinate length, Bill had not even gotten sober yet by the time the manuscript ends. The typed story is thirty-six pages long and it simply runs out mind-sentence at the bottom of the last page rather than reaching any conclusive ending." (William A. Schaberg, Writing the Big Book, 2019)

Despite its extraordinary length, it stands as a valuable record of Bill's early life and includes a more detailed elaboration on his boomerang story.

Notable in this draft is the genesis of the Twelve Steps, still six months away from writing. Within the four steps are eight of the final twelve.

Also interesting is the inclusion of the phrase "God as we understood Him." AA mythology states this phraseology was adopted following discussions with members in the following December, January and February 1939. However, this draft makes clear that the phrase was known to Bill as early as late May 1938 and likely came from Ebby Thatcher in November and December 1934, a phrase he'd claimed to have learned from the Oxford Groups. However, there are no recorded uses of this phrase by the Oxford Groups.

Chapter 2 - There is a Solution

p. 22

'on the water wagon'

"The original version of this expression 'on the water wagon' or 'water cart,' which isn't heard anymore, best explains the phrase. During the late 19th century, water carts drawn by horses wet down dusty roads in the summer. At the height of the Prohibition crusade in the 1890s men who vowed to stop drinking would say that they were thirsty indeed but would rather climb aboard the water cart to get a drink than break their pledges. From this sentiment came the expression 'I'm on the water cart,' I'm trying to stop drinking, which is first recorded in, of all places, Alice Caldwell Rice's 'Mrs. Wiggs of the Caggage Patch' , where the consumptive Mr. Dick says it to old Mrs. Wiggs. The more alliterative 'wagon' soon replaced cart in the expression and it was eventually shortened to 'on the wagon.' 'Fall off the (water) wagon' made its entry into the language almost immediately after its abstinent sister."

From the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

p. 24

'"What's the use anyhow"'

“One of the reasons that may make it difficult for an inebriate to reform permanently is an idealization of the past, which he futilely believes he can revive, a belief often unexpressed with which he fools himself over and over again. "This time it is going to be different," you may hear him say, but if you know him well you will smile. There are plans made to drink slowly, to take small drinks, to stick to beer (the most futile of all), to prime first with olive oil, and not to drink before or after certain hours; all in the long run are of no avail.”

From The Common Sense of Drinking. Ch III, 2 by Richard R Peabody PhD. We know that Bill read this book prior to writing the Big Book.

p. 26

'A certain American business man'

This refers to Rowland Hazard of the Oxford Group. He never joined AA but never drank again and died at his desk at work, sober.

p. 28

'"a design for living"'

This is in quotation marks because it is a phrase borrowed from the Oxford Groups.

Chapter 3 - More About Alcoholism

p. 31

'Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic.'

“Dr. Elwood Worcester, a pioneer in the psychological treatment of inebriates, tried in the early days of his work to teach drunkards to drink "like gentlemen." He told me that in spite of his best efforts was 100 per cent unsuccessful. Because of Dr. Worcester's skill and experience this would seem to be convincing testimony of the futility of trying to teach the art of drinking to one who has ever reached the point where it has become a pathological problem. Mr. Courtenay Baylor, after seventeen years' successful work with alcoholics, is most emphatically of the same opinion.”

From The Common Sense of Drinking. Ch III, 2 by Richard R Peabody PhD. We know that Bill read this book prior to writing the Big Book.

p. 32

'A man of thirty'

This story was probably adapted from the chapter "First Steps" in the book The Common Sense of Drinking by Richard Peabody. There is one story on page 37 that speaks of a man 36 years old that had been drinking for 16 years and another story on page 123 regarding a man who gave up drinking to make a million dollars.

Neither one of these actually match the story in the big book. The story on page 123 is the one that most closely matches the story in the book. The big discrepancy in the story is the amount of sobriety this man had (full text below). The big book speaks of 25 years of sobriety and the other states he had 5 years sober.

"Some years ago there lived a man who decided to give up drinking until he could make a million dollars, at which time he intended to drink in moderation. It took him 5 years of sobriety to make the million; then he begins his "moderate" drinking. In two or three years he lost all his money, and in another three he died of alcoholism."

p. 35

'a friend we shall call Jim.'

This refers to Ralph F. author of "Another Prodigal Story" in the first edition of the Big Book, p. 357.

p. 39

'Fred is a partner is a well known accounting firm.'

This refers to Harry B. He is the author of the first edition big book story "A Different Slant". Harry later sued AA for money he loaned to print the big book. 

It is worth noting that of the two stories in this chapter, one person (Jim) drank because of personal challenges, but Fred drank after a successful day. 

p. 43

'One of these men, staff member of a world-renowned hospital,'

This refers to Percy Pollick. He was a psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital in New York.

Chapter 4 - We Agnostics

p. 50

'As a celebrated American statesman put it'

This refers to Alfred E. Smith, four time governor of New York and was unsuccessfully the first Roman Catholic presidential candidate.

p. 51

'Professor Langley's flying machine'

See for more details.

p. 55

'deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God.'

This idea is likely to have stemmed from Jungian psychology.

p. 55

'a man who thought he was an atheist.'

This refers to Fitz M., author of the Big Book Story "Our Southern Friend".

Chapter 5 - How it Works

p. 58


A rumour has persisted for years that Bill wished he could have changed the word “rarely” to “never.” But we know, through Bill’s own words, that that is not the case. In a letter to Les V., dated May 25, 1961 Bill W. stated:

"…Concerning your comment about the use of the word 'rarely' in Chapter Five of the Big Book. My recollection is that we did give a considerable thought at the time of writing. I think the main reason for the use of 'rarely' was to avoid anything that would look like a claim for a 100% result. Assuming of course that an alcoholic is willing enough and sane enough, there can be a perfect score on such character. But since willingness and sanity are such illusive and fluctuating values, we simply didn't like to be too positive. The medical profession could jump right down our throats…I do remember thinking about it a lot."

In addition, the following question and response were made at the 1970 General Service Conference, as part of the “Ask-It” Basket questions. Bill was, of course, still living at this time and was able to respond:

Q.  Has Bill ever said, "If there was any change he would make in the Big Book, it would be to change the world 'rarely' to 'never' at the start of Chapter Five"?

A.  "No, Bill said he had never considered this" (1970 General Service Conference Report, p. 31).

p. 58

'Half measures availed us nothing'

This is almost a direct quotation from The Common Sense of Drinking by Richard Peabody which says, "Halfway measures are of no avail."

p. 59

'Here are the steps we took'

It's worth noting that originally there were only six steps. So several of those early members are unlikely to have taken all twelve steps as we know them today. Below are the original six steps.

The original sex steps in Bill's handwriting
The original sex steps in Bill's handwriting.

Chapter 6 - Into Action

p. 73

'all their life story.'

Some AA members write their inventory as a life story. It is this quote where this idea seems to stem from.

For many members, however, there is a deeper reliance on Chapter 5 where it says ‘we were usually as definite as this example’. This is followed by the example inventory in a grid.

p. 74

'a close-mouthed, understanding friend.'

Although the Big Book doesn't explicitly mention a sponsor, it is common for AA members to take their inventory to a sponsor. Taking an inventory to a sponsor is, however, suggested in the Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions. But this isn't a rule. As the book suggests, it is entirely possible to take an inventory to someone outside of AA who won't be affected by the sharing of the inventory.

p. 80

'a story about one of our friends.'

This is believed to be an Oxford Group story passed along through the members.

p. 84

'and continue to set right any new mistakes as we go along.'

While a written step ten inventory at night has become common in AA culture, the book suggests that step ten is something we do all day, 'as we go along'. The suggestions for what to do when we retire at night (p. 86)

p. 86 

'When we retire at night'

This is step 11.

Chapter 7 - Working With Others

p. 90

'When you discover a prospect for Alcoholics Anonymous, find out all you can about him.'

This idea is likely inspired by the following quote from The Common Sense of Drinking.

“Unless a prospective patient is entirely on his own, a preliminary interview with his family or most intimate friend is most important. Much instructive material may be obtained from them which the patient cannot give, no matter how willing and honest he may be. Frequently what he says and does when drinking is a valuable source of information. The inhibitions are lowered and the resulting speech and action may show clearly the repressions, somewhat in the manner of a dream but without its symbolization”

(The Common Sense of Drinking, Richard R Peabody PhD, Ch III, 4)

p. 101

'In our beleif any scheme of combating alcoholism which proposes to shield the sick man from temptation is doomed to failure.'

Our co-founder, Dr Bob. He said "I was adamant on having liquor. I said we had to prove that you could live in the presence of liquor. So I got two big bottles and put them right on the sideboard and that drove Anne wild for awhile." 

“What should he done with the liquor in the house is apt to be one of the first questions asked. The answer is that such dramatic gestures as pouring it away are futile. There is always plenty more obtainable around the corner. It is better to fight the battle out on the firing fine, unless the patient definitely feels that it would be easier to have as dry surroundings as possible during the first part of his rehabilitation. If he does react in this manner he must say so frankly and without feelings of inferiority, for many first-class men have taken that attitude in the beginning, and it is only the stupid or insincere who force themselves beyond their limit. But most men prefer to continue serving their friends in the customary manner. They get a certain stimulating satisfaction in refraining from drinking when there is plenty of it under their noses. Best results are obtained, however, where this liquor is used in moderation as the sober view of "drunken parties" is apt to bore the non-drinking alcoholic just as much as it does any other non-participant. As an escape from such boredom and as a result of concentrated negative suggestion the patient may be tempted to take refuge in the fatal "small one" as a means of adjusting himself to an annoying situation.

"The inebriate who is attempting to overcome his habit must be given his way in regard to all things pertaining to an alcoholic environment. If he does not want liquor in the house, then obviously it should be removed.”

(The Common Sense of Drinking, Richard R Peabody PhD, Ch III, 4)

p. 101 

'whoopee parties'

"Whoopee" means wild celebrations and merrymaking, therefore a whoopee party is simply a wild party with an ample supply of liquor - the old fashioned form of a kegger.

The New Century Dictionary, D. Appleton-Century Co. 1944. defines whoopee as:

Whoopee (hwup´ê, wup´ê, hwoo´pê) interjection. 

1) Uproarious festivity: often in ‘to make whoopee.’ [Slang, U.S.] 

Wikipedia shows a very early Walt Disney movie was "The Whoopee Party" starring Mickey Mouse & friends having a party.

Chapter 8 - To Wives

Bill's wife Lois had expected to be asked to write this chapter but Bill disagreed. Bill did consider asking Dr. Bob's wife Anne but eventually decided to write it himself.

"Therefore I had expected Bill to ask me to write the chapter "To Wives" and perhaps the following one, "The Family Afterward." When I shyly suggested this, he said no; he thought the book, except for the stories, should all be written in the same style. I have never known why he didn't want me to write about the wives, and it hurt me at first; but our lives were so full that I didn't have time to think about it much."

(Lois Remembers, p. 114)

Interestingly though, Bill did allow a second voice into the main body of the book when he agreed that Hank P. should write "To Employers."

Chapter 9 - The Family Afterward

p. 124

'For example, we know of situations in which the alcoholic or his wife have had love affairs.'

Eddie R. the very first prospect approached by Bill and Bob before they helped Bill D, AA number three, "the man on the bed." Eddie was sober for a short time when his wife told him of an affair she had had and Eddie got drunk. Eddie was present at Dr Bob's funeral, 15 years later in 1950, with about 12 months sobriety.

p. 125

'We do talk about each other a great deal, but we almost invariably temper such talk by a spirit of love and tolerance.'

Perhaps some guidance on gossip in AA.

"In AA, for instance, we talk a great deal about each other. Provided our motives are thoroughly good, this is not in the least wrong. But damaging gossip is quite something else. Of course, this kind of scuttlebutt can be well grounded in fact. But no such abuse of the facts could ever be twisted into anything resembling integrity. It can't be maintained that this sort of superficial honesty os good for anyone. So the need to examine ourselves is very much with us. Following a gossip binge we can well ask ourselves these questions: "Why did we say what we did? Were we only trying to be helpful and informative? Or were we not trying to feel superior by confessing the other fellow's sins? Or, because of fear and dislike, were we not really aiming to damage him?" This would be an honest attempt to examine ourselves, rather than the other fellow. Here we see the difference between the use of the truth and it's misuse. Right here we begin to regain the integrity we had lost."

(The Language of the Heart, p. 261)

p. 135

'One of our friends is a heavy smoker and coffee drinker.'

Earl T. from Chicago. His story is titled "He Sold Himself Short" is in the second edition of the Big Book.

Chapter 10 - To Employers

Hank P. (1895 - 1954)

p. 136

'we think of one member who has spent much of his life in the world of big business.'

Hank P. from New Jersey. Hank's story was in the first edition of the big book entitled "The Unbeliever".

Hank was the first man Bill W. was successful in sobering up after returning from his famous trip to Akron where he met Dr. Bob. Thus Hank was A.A. #2 in New York prior to resuming drinking about four years later. His original date of sobriety was either October or November 1935.

Hank was a salesman, an agnostic, and a former Standard Oil of New Jersey executive, who had lost his job because of drinking. He wound up at Towns Hospital, where Bill found him in the fall of 1935. The first mention of Hank in the Big Book is on page xxix of The Doctor’s Opinion. He is believed to be the man Dr. Silkworth described who seemed to be a case of pathological mental deterioration. (Hank later became very paranoid and Dr. Silkworth warned Bill he might become dangerous.)

When Bill and Lois lost their home on Clinton Street, Brooklyn, it was to Hank P.’s home in New Jersey that they moved for a short time.

He and Jim B. (“The Vicious Cycle”), lead the fight against too much talk of God in the 12 steps, which resulted in the compromise “God as we understood Him.”

Hank had a small business, Honor Dealers, in Newark, NJ. It is the little company mentioned on page 149. According to one source, he had conceived it as a way of getting back at Standard Oil, which had fired him. Bill W. and Jim B. worked there for a time and Bill dictated most of the Big Book to Ruth Hock in this office.

Ruth Hock said the Big Book would not have been written without Bill, and it would not have been published without Hank. And Hank wrote, except for the opening paragraph, the chapter “To Employers.”

But Hank became very hostile toward Bill. Problems developed between them over the way Hank was setting up Works Publishing Co., as a for profit corporation, with himself as President. As a result of the feedback from group members, Bill listed himself as the sole author of the Big Book as a means of counter-balancing this.

There were other problems over money, and over Ruth Hock. Hank wanted to divorce his wife, Kathleen, and marry Ruth, and when Ruth decided to go with Bill when he moved the A.A. office out of Honor Dealers, Hank was furious. Bill paid him $200 for the office furniture (which he claimed he still owned, but which had been purchased from him earlier), in exchange for Hank turning over his stock in Works Publishing, as all the others had done. Hank then went to Cleveland to try to start problems for Bill there.

No one knows exactly when Hank had started drinking again, but in the diary Lois W. kept there are various September 1939 entries that mention that Hank was drunk. He did get back on the program for a short time at some later date but it didn’t last.

Nevertheless, A.A. owes Hank a debt of gratitude for his many contributions during his all too short period of sobriety.

He died after a long illness at Glenwood Sanitarium in Trenton, New Jersey, on January 18, 1954, at the age of fifty-seven. Lois W. ascribed his death to drinking. Funeral services were held Thursday, January 22 at Blackwell Memorial Home. Rev. A. Kenneth Magner of the First Presbyterian Church performed the service.

At the time of his death he and his wife, Kathleen Nixon P. (whom he had remarried after two failed marriages) were living at Washington-Crossing Road, Pennington, New Jersey. One son, Henry G. P., Jr., was living in Madeira Beach, Florida. A second son Robert S. P., was living in Pennington.


p. 138

'One day he told me about an executive of the same bank'

Clarence S. from Cleveland, Ohio. (880 Euclid Ave), Sobriety date: February 11, 1938. Died Sober: March 22, 1984. His story was in the first through third editions of the big book entitled "The Home Brewmeister." Clarence led a revolt to separate from the Oxford Group and announced a special meeting of alcoholics, starting the Cleveland group, May 18, 1939 at the Cleveland Heights home of Abby G.. This was the first group to be called "Alcoholics Anonymous." He attended John D. Rockefeller's A.A. dinner February 8, 1940. He was also the leader of a group of dissident anti-Conference and anti-General Service Office members. 

p. 140

'a prominent doctor in Chicago'

Dan Craske, M.D., (Additional references in the story "He Sold Himself Short") 3rd edition - Page 294 last paragraph, 4th edition - Page 265 last paragraph.

p. 149

'Today I own a little company.'

Honor Dealers Company, Auto Polish Dealership.

Chapter 11 - A Vision For You

p. 152


A less familar phrase today. A sally is a witty or lively remark, especially one made as an attack or as a diversion in an argument; a retort.

"there was subdued laughter at this sally"

synonyms: witticism, witty remark, smart remark, quip, barb, pleasantry, epigram, aphorism.

p. 153

'"Love they neighbour as thyself"'

"Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

(Matthew 22: 34-40)

Also in

Mark 12:31
Matthew 19:19
Matthew 5:43
Leviticus 19:18 

p. 154

'He would phone a clergyman'

Reverend Walter F. Tunks, Rector at St Paul's Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio.

p. 155

'Selecting a church at random from the directory'

This was at the Mayflower Hotel in Akron, Ohio. The telephone and church directory are still on display to this day.

From this call Bill was put in touch with the Rev. Walter Tunks. As they were both members of the Oxford Groups, this call was not as uncommon as it may appear. The Rev. Tunks put Bill in touch with Henrietta Seiberling, another Oxford Group member and daughter-in-law of the founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.  Separated from her husband, she lived with her two children at the Gate Lodge at Stan Hywet Hall. Henrietta was a friend to Bob and Anne Smith and so knew of Bob's struggles with alcohol.

The Mayflower Hotel lobby in 1953.
The Mayflower Hotel as depicted on a postcard.
Henrietta Seiberling

p. 156

'they called up the head nurse'

This was Mrs. Hall, admissions nurse at the Akron City Hospital.

p. 156

'Yes, we've got a corker. He's just beaten up a couple of nurses.'

Bill D. from Kenmore, Ohio, Sobriety Date: June 26, 1935. Bill D was AA member number three, the "Man On The Bed." Bill was a lawyer and the first to stay sober in AA without a slip.

Bill D. wrote the story "Alcoholics Anonymous Number Three" in all editions of the Big Book.

Bill D.

p. 158

'boiled as an owl'

This phrase has fallen our of use but owls were often associated with protection from alcoholism in the past. In English folklore, the owl egg was believed to cure alcoholism. A child given raw owl eggs was then protected from drunkenness throughout his life.

Not recommended, but as a side note, see also The Eskimo Cookbook (1952): Recipe (in its entirety) for boiled owl: Take feathers off. Clean owl and put in cooking pot with lots of water. Add salt to taste.

p. 158

'political campaign'

Bill D. ran for city councilman but lost the election.

p. 158

'a devil-may-care young fellow'

Ernie G. was 30 years old. He later married Dr. Bob's daughter Sue against Bob's wishes. Sue liked Ernie, but he later turned out to be a less than likeable man. Ernie's story, "The Seventh Month Slip" was in the First Edition of the Big Book

In Akron, there was another Ernie G. who got sober later and who was a very good AA member and much was written about him. It's important not to get these two Ernie G's mixed up. 

p. 159

'succeeded with seven more.'

Here is the list of the next 10 members. Some of these had slips and came back right away. We are not certain who Bill counted or in what order. 

Ernie G. - Akron, 8/1935 (the Seven Month Slip)

Hank P. - New York, 9/1935 (The Unbeliever)

Phil S. - Akron, 9/1935 (the 1st AA court case)

Tom L. - Akron, 11/1935 (My Wife and I)

Fitz M. - New York, 11/1935 (Our Southern Friend)

Walter B. - Akron, 2/1936 (The Backslider)

Joe D. - Akron, 4/1936 (The European Drinker)

Myron "Jack" W. - New York, 4/1936 (Hindsight)

Paul S. - Akron, 7/1936 (Truth Freed Me)

J. D. H. - Akron, 9/1936

p. 160

'One man and his wife'

T. Henry and Clarace Williams, 876 Palisades Drive, Akron, Ohio. T. Henry was an engineer at the company where Bill W. was waging a proxy battle to gain control of National Rubber Machinery in May of 1935. Both were Oxford Group members and held a weekly meeting at their home on Wednesday nights.

T. Henry & Clarace Williams
Their home where meetings were held.

p. 161

'A community thirty miles away'

Cleveland, Ohio.

p. 162

'a well-known hospital'

Charles B. Towns Hospital, 293 Central Park West, New York.

p. 162

'one of our number'

This refers to our co-founder, Bill W.

p. 162

'We are greatly indebted to the doctor in attendance there'

This refers to Dr. William D. Silkworth.

p. 162

'in this eastern city'

New York

p. 163

'We know of an A.A. member who was living in a large community.'

This refers to Hank P. of Montclair, New Jersey. Hank P. wrote "To Employers" and the story "The Unbeliever".

p. 163

'He got in touch with a prominent psychiatrist.'

Dr. Howard of Montclair, New Jersey.

p. 163

'Arrangements were also made with the chief psychiatrist of a large public hospital'

This refers to Dr. Russel E. Blaisdell, Rockland State Hospital near Orangeburg, New York. He attended the Rockefeller Dinner on February 8, 1940.

p. 164

'trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.'

This word, "trudge", has occasionally been interpreted in more positive ways that its actual meaning. For some this is interpreted as to 'walk with purpose', but the dictionary offers a more accurate definition.

"to walk slowly with a lot of effort, especially over a difficult surface or while carrying something heavy:"

(Cambridge Dictionary)

"to walk slowly and heavily because you are tired or working very hard"

(Merriam Webster Dictionary)

"Walk slowly and with heavy steps, typically because of exhaustion or harsh conditions"

(Oxford English Dictionary)

So rather than an inspiring note to end the chapter on, perhaps Bill is recognising the reality of the challenges presented by the sober life.

Suggested further study sources

Film: When Love is not Enough

This epic story of devotion, recovery and hope spans more than 30 years and is based on the true story of the enduring but troubled love between Lois Wilson, co-founder of Al-Anon, and her alcoholic husband Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Film: My Name is Bill W.

This film reconstructs the true story of stockbroker William Griffith Wilson (James Woods), a World War I veteran whose small drinking problem becomes a serious addiction after he loses his fortune in the stock market collapse of 1929. Wilson's career and his domestic life are in tatters when he meets Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith (James Garner), also struggling with a drinking problem. The two form a support group that becomes the basis for the organisation Alcoholics Anonymous.

This film is not currently available for streaming. DVDs are available online.

Film: Bill W.

William G. Wilson is co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, a man included in TIME Magazine's "100 Persons of the 20th Century." Interviews, recreations, and rare archival material reveal how Bill Wilson, a hopeless drunk near death from his alcoholism, found a way out of his own addiction and then forged a path for countless others to follow. With Bill as its driving force, A.A. grew from a handful of men to a worldwide fellowship of over 2 million men and women - a success that made him an icon within A.A., but also an alcoholic unable to be a member of the very society he had created. A reluctant hero, Bill Wilson lived a life of sacrifice and service, and left a legacy that continues every day, all around the world.

Audio: The Joe & Charlie Big Book Study Tapes

Joe McQ. & Charlie P. met in 1973 when Joe introduced Charlie as the AA speaker at an Al-Anon Convention. Joe had wondered if Charlie might be the country-western singer Charlie Pride. He wasn’t even the right color, Joe laments. They instantly discovered their mutual fascination with AA’s basic text The Big Book. What interested them most was that The Big Book was written in a particular sequence to convey certain ideas. That interest began a close friendship which has lasted to this day. They would frequently meet to discuss the book, often driving 225 miles to meet in each other’s homes.

Soon they were planning meetings in hotel rooms at AA conventions in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and within a few years, the meetings grew in popularity. In 1977, some members met in a Tulsa, OK hotel room for a discussion of the Big Book. One asked Joe & Charlie to come to his home group to present a program on the book. An AA taper made a four tape set of their presentation and called it The Big Book Study. The tapes were gradually circulated throughout the fellowship and invitations were received for Joe & Charlie to present the study at AA conventions, roundups and special events. By 1980, there had been about eight studies offered. At the 1980 International AA Convention in New Orleans, Westly P. an impassioned Big Booker from Pompano Beach, Florida, organized a lunch for 1,500 AAs from all over the world and gave away 100 Joe & Charlie tape sets as door prizes. Invitations exploded and within a couple of years, Joe & Charlie were presenting about 36 studies a year worldwide. Obviously, the seminars struck a deep chord within AA members … for the reaffirmation of this message as written in April 1939 with the publication of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Studies have been given in 48 states and most Canadian provinces. Additionally, Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands have all hosted the Big Book Study seminars with Joe & Charlie.

All this growth did not come without a measure of turbulence. What spiritual journey does not encounter obstacles? Some fellow AAs have termed the duo, self-appointed gurus. Others have accused them of making money on these weekends. Actually, only travel expenses, meals and lodging were paid for by the independent AA host committee sponsoring the study. This is in accordance with the AA Guidelines for Conferences and Conventions, published by the General Service Office. Since 1977, an estimated 200,000 AA Members have experienced the spiritual benefits of these collective studies.

Joe McQ. passed away on Oct. 25, 2007.

Charlie P. passed away on April 21, 2011.

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