Archive of Recovery

By Emily Gold / March / April 2000
October 29th, 2007
One of the most significant coffee pots in history is now housed at Brown. The pot in question was a key to the sobriety of the two founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, who started the group in 1935. The two men would sit at their kitchen table in Akron, Ohio, and pour cup after cup of coffee while each tried to keep the other away from the liquor cabinet.

Thanks to Brown’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, the black-handled aluminum pot is among 5,000 items in the $100,000 “Dr. Bob” collection of personal writings and belongings that is being housed, at least temporarily, in the John Hay library. The collection, which will be available to anyone studying AA and the origins of twelve-step recovery programs, was acquired from Smith’s daughter last fall.

The collection, which fills nineteen cardboard boxes, arrived on campus in November. Special collections curator Mary-Jo Kline says that, since official AA archives are off-limits to most people, a library that acquires any AA material considers it a major coup. The Dr. Bob collection joins a vast archive of University materials on AA, the temperance movement, and the history of illegal drugs. The core of the archive, the Chester H. Kirk Collection, includes some 15,000 items on alcoholism and AA, from a 1493 depiction of a drunken Noah to audiotapes of AA meetings.

Highlights of the new acquisition include the notes of Smith’s wife, Anne, who jotted down the spiritual principles that eventually became the AA movement’s twelve steps. There is also a 1949 loose-leaf binder with instructions on how to set up an AA meeting, as well as countless pages of Smith letters and notes. Researchers can also glean information from Smith’s library, which included the 1933 A Quarter of an Hour with Christ and several books on Asian religion. Such books, says Kline, “show you what Bob Smith thought was interesting.”

Die-hard Dr. Bob fans will also find his golf trophy and rusted clubs, his Social Security card, and his medical instruments. (He was a proctologist.) There is his Depression-era glass creamer, a tiny black address book, and family photographs. Another gem is a 1948 Cleveland Indians World Series baseball, signed by player and AA member Rollie Hemsley and his teammates.

David C. Lewis ’67, director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, organized the purchase of the Dr. Bob collection. He says the items will help researchers from many disciplines. “In order to understand addiction, you have to understand more than neurotransmitters,” Lewis says. “Understanding the social and personal dimensions, as well as the chemical, still makes a difference.” Lewis’s addiction center offers fellowships to study the archive.

The Dr. Bob collection may draw more than scholarly interest. Smith’s coffee pot, along with his 1939 first-edition copy of the 400-page Alcoholics Anonymous (known to members as “The Big Book”), which brought the AA movement to the nation at large, might make Brown a pilgrimage destination. According to Wally Paton, an AA historian who helped orchestrate the Brown acquisition, about 20,000 AA members travel each year to Smith’s Akron home to pay homage to their organization’s founder. There is every reason to believe, Paton says, that an equal number of people will visit Brown.

“If the Big Book is their bible,” explains Kline, “the coffee pot is their Holy Grail.”

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March / April 2000