Robert Holbrook Smith, “Dr. Bob”
Co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous
Born on August 8, 1879, the only child of Judge Walter Perrin Smith and Susan L. Smith, young Bob grew up in a house on the corner of Summer St. and Central St. in St. Johnsbury, a typical Vermont town with about 7000 people. He had a much older foster sister named Amanda Northrop.
Walter Perrin Smith was very active in business and civic affairs. He was a judge on the Caledonia Probate Court, and later a State’s Attorney and member of the Vermont Legislature. At one time he was the Superintendent of St. Johnsbury Schools, plus he taught Sunday school at the North Congregational Church for 40 years. Susan L. Smith believed in strict parental supervision, no-nonsense education, and regular spiritual devotion. She busied herself with the social and religious activities of the North Congregational church. She also was a teacher at the St. Johnsbury Academy, a Christian based school.
Young Bob was first listed in the 1880 yearbook of the North Congregational Church as attending Sunday school and last listed in the yearbook of 1914. While growing up, he was expected to attend five religious services per week. He also attended the Summer Street Graded School which was two blocks down the street from his home. Bob spent his childhood hiking the Knob and the surrounding hills. He fished and swam in the nearby lakes and rivers. At an early age, young Bob learned to slip down the back stairs and out the back door to join his friends after his five o’clock bedtime. He was never caught. During the summer months, young Bob and his foster sister Amanda spent many hours building and sailing their own boat on Lake Champlain while staying at the Smith summer cottage situated on the Vermont-New York border. Amanda later became a history professor at Hunter College in New York City.
Bob had his first drink at the age of nine, while helping neighbors bale hay. He found a hidden jug of hard cider, uncorked it, sniffed and gasped…. he still took a drink! Although he was accused of being “wayward” by his parents and teachers, young Bob managed to maintain creditable grades while attending St. Johnsbury Academy.
While at a dance in the gym at the Academy, Bob met his bride to be, Anne Robinson Ripley, a girl with quiet charm, who was attending Wellesley College on a scholarship and was visiting St. Johnsbury with a classmate who had graduated from the Academy.
After graduation in 1898, Bob attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. and received his Bachelor’s degree in 1902. While at Dartmouth, Bob learned that the most favored extracurricular activity was drinking. It seemed to be what he and his friends did best. After leaving Dartmouth, Bob had two years of career uncertainty, and worked at Fairbanks Scales in St. Johnsbury before leaving the state to attend pre-med at the University of Michigan in 1905. He then attended Rush University in Chicago, IL. and obtained his M.D. in 1910 with outstanding grades. Bob was awarded a coveted 2-year internship at Akron City Hospital in Akron, Ohio. Two years later he opened a private practice in the Second National Bank Building of Akron. His offices were in the same building until he retired from practice in 1948. Completely on his own, Dr. Bob developed considerable stomach trouble, the remedy being, of course, a couple of drinks. The old drinking habits returned.
Hoping for relief, Bob went to local sanitariums a dozen times. After three years, he ended up in a local hospital. He could not stay away from alcohol and rapidly grew worse. Bob’s father sent a St Johnsbury doctor to Akron to bring him home to the house he was born in, where he convalesced for four months.
In 1915, Dr. Bob went to Chicago to marry Anne and bring her back to Akron. Their son Robert and their daughter Sue were born. He began a successful professional career. Life became sensible until liquor began to take over again. Dr. Bob was carful not to receive patients if he was drinking. He stayed sober until 4:00 pm when he went home, so that he could keep his drinking problem from becoming common knowledge. Eventually, in 1933 he became acquainted with the then popular Christian based Oxford Group. For 2 ½ years, he attended meetings but still drank. Dr. Bob began to research the religious and spiritual philosophies of the ages trying to gain knowledge.
On May 12, 1935, Henrietta Seiberling, an Oxford Group adherent, introduced Dr. bob to Bill Wilson who had been born in East Dorset, Vt. Bill spoke of his experiences with alcohol, and had one simple message “Show me your faith and by my works I will show you mine.” Bob had his last drink one month later.
Together, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob created the premise of the 12 Steps and Alcoholics Anonymous. To Dr. Bob, the 12 Steps meant “Love and Service”. One alcoholic helping another… In July, 1950, Dr. Bob attended the 1st AA International Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. It was his last appearance at a large AA gathering.
On November 16, 1950, Dr. Bob, the Prince of 12 Steppers, died in Akron, Ohio, SOBER….