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Alcoholics Anonymous and the Disease Concept of Alcoholism

By Ernest Kurtz, Ph.D.

Given the issues and prejudices involved, it is unlikely that the question of the historical relationship between Alcoholics Anonymous and the disease concept of alcoholism will ever be definitively resolved.

But this does not mean that study of the topic is useless. We can discover, organize, and evaluate presently available information with aspirations to increased clarity even if not to perfect pellucidity, hoping to approach ever greater accuracy even if -- until time-travel be perfected by omniscient observers -- we are barred from the Rankean paradise of wie es eigentlich gewesen sei.

On the basic question, the data are clear: Contrary to common opinion, Alcoholics Anonymous neither originated nor promulgated what has come to be called the disease concept of alcoholism.

Yet its members did have a large role in spreading and popularizing that understanding. How and Why and So What are the burden of this paper as a whole. As is often stated in introductions but too rarely recognized in analyses, Alcoholics Anonymous is its members.

That membership tries to live their program's Twelve Steps, guided by their fellowship's Twelve Traditions. The Tenth of those Traditions reads: "Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy."1

The nature of alcoholism is an "outside issue." Thus, Alcoholics Anonymous as Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on it, as most members will tell anyone who asks.

But anyone who passes any time with members of Alcoholics Anonymous soon becomes aware of two other realities.

First, most members of Alcoholics Anonymous do speak of their alcoholism in terms of disease: the vocabulary of disease was from the beginning and still remains for most of them the best available for understanding and explaining their own experience.

But the use of that vocabulary no more implies deep commitment to the tenet that alcoholism is a disease in some technical medical sense than speaking of sunrise or sunset implies disbelief in a Copernican solar system.

Second, most members, in the year 2000 no less than in 1939, will also tell an inquirer that their alcoholism has physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions.

This advertence to complexity, and especially the emphasis on "the spiritual," is A.A.'s largest contribution: it is the necessary framework within which any discussion of A.A.'s relationship to the disease concept of alcoholism must be located.

The closest the book Alcoholics Anonymous comes to a definition of alcoholism appears on p. 44, at the conclusion of the first paragraph of the "We Agnostics" chapter, where we are told that alcoholism "is an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer."

For Alcoholics Anonymous also has a literature, some of which enjoys a kind of "official" status because it is approved, published and distributed by the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Most important among this literature, based on member usage, are the A.A. "Big Book," Alcoholics Anonymous, the essays written by longer-lived co-founder and Big-Book-author William Griffith Wilson published as Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and the telling of A.A.'s history primarily by Wilson in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.

Among A.A.'s less official literature are The A.A. Grapevine, an officially "unofficial" monthly published continuously since June 1944, and other publications and statements of cofounder Wilson.

These latter, though also officially unofficial, derive a degree of authority from their acceptance and repetition by members of Alcoholics Anonymous over the years.

Their authority derives less from "Bill said" than from the practical reality that many members' experience attests that what Bill said on some topics merits credence.**

Among these statements is a reply Wilson gave when specifically asked about alcoholism as disease after he had addressed the annual meeting of the National Catholic Clergy Conference on Alcoholism in 1961:

We have never called alcoholism a disease because, technically speaking, it is not a disease entity. For example, there is no such thing as heart disease. Instead there are many separate heart ailments, or combinations of them. It is something like that with alcoholism. Therefore we did not wish to get in wrong with the medical profession by pronouncing alcoholism a disease entity. Therefore we always called it an illness, or a malady -- a far safer term for us to use.

As the parallel with "heart ailments" as well as the proffered synonyms suggest, Wilson is here hardly denying an understanding that includes a medico/physiological element in alcoholism.

Given his expressed hesitancies, why? And why do so many members of Alcoholics Anonymous speak of their alcoholism in the vocabulary of disease?? 

** Wilson also said things, e.g., about Vitamin B-3, that the great majority of A.A. members do not follow; the present paper will limit its use of Wilson materials and words to those generally accepted within the A.A. fellowship.

The answer is both simple and complex: simple because Alcoholics Anonymous, like any reality, reflects the context of its time; complex because A.A. has existed long enough that its context has changed... and, indeed, changed more than once.

All realities are shaped by their context. Some entities also make contributions, significantly shaping later contexts. So it is with Alcoholics Anonymous and the culture's understanding of alcoholism.

For diverse reasons, circumstances of origin tend to be the most important, to have the most pervasive and lasting effects. Thus we will begin at the beginning - not at the beginning of the disease concept of alcoholism, a far larger and more complex topic, but at the beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous.2

Alcoholics Anonymous came into being in the mid- to late 1930s.

In that era of the Great Depression, the recent end of the Prohibition controversy by the 21st Amendment's repeal of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America left most people bored with the topic of alcohol -- they were tired of hearing about it.

Some members of the cultural elite, philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller and scientists such as those who in 1937 formed the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol, were concerned about the possible societal effects of Repeal, but even among the social workers who knew that Prohibition had not been a "failure," the drinking of alcohol was not a subject of frequent discussion.3

The earliest A.A. candidates, of course, were not bored by the topic of alcohol. If their own drinking did not trouble them, their apparent inability to stop getting drunk was for most a real concern.

And for many who "got" A.A., who sobered up and stayed sober in Alcoholics Anonymous after their many other efforts had failed, why A.A. worked became a question of interest. As do most people, they turned for answers to the common professional or scientific understanding of the matter.

One version of that understanding was mediated to them by Dr. William Duncan Silkworth in the introductory pages of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet even this is not precisely accurate, for what Dr. Silkworth offered was not some theoretical explanation of "alcoholism" but a potent description of the alcoholic.

"What alcoholism is" was not among the chief worries of the earliest A.A. members. In fact, "what alcoholism is" has never been among the main concerns of later members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Consistently over time, members of Alcoholics Anonymous, especially as members of Alcoholics Anonymous, have been interested not in alcoholism but in alcoholics -- in people rather than in things.4

At the time of the birth and youth of Alcoholics Anonymous, from 1934 through its selfproclaimed "Coming of Age" in 1955, the understandings that "the alcoholic" was a person who "had alcoholism" and that alcoholism was a disease were commonplace in the professional literature.

As a report of the Scientific Committee of the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol put it in 1938: "An alcoholic should be regarded as a sick person, just as one who is suffering from tuberculosis, cancer, heart disease, or other serious chronic disorder."

Those doubting that "disease" was the orthodoxy before Alcoholics Anonymous came onto the scene should hie themselves to a good library and read "Drinking and Alcoholism," by Genevieve Parkhurst, in the July 1937 Harpers Magazine.5

From the mid-1940s on, at first from a base within Yale University's Center of Alcohol Studies, the National Committee on Education on Alcoholism -- later the National Council on Alcoholism -- actively pushed this understanding under the guiding hand of Mrs. Marty Mann.6

Few in that era questioned the terminology or its assumptions: alcoholism-understood-as-disease "worked" and thus passed the pragmatic criterion of truth that ruled the age of World War II and its immediate aftermath.

What it "worked" at doing, as Dwight Anderson had set forth even before Ms. Mann arrived on the scene, was to elicit the kind of attention and concern that led to help for the alcoholic (Anderson 1942).?  [article continues]


The writing of this article was subsidized by a grant from the Behavioral Health Recovery Management project, a partnership of Fayette Companies and Chestnut Health Systems funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.

This excerpt published with kind permission of the author - see complete article with references at

From site of Behavioral Health Recovery Management