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Who Created 12-Step Programs? A Brief History

Summary: The 12-step program has a rich history rooted in the struggles and triumphs of its founders, Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. Their vision to help others recover from addiction led to the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous and the development of the 12-step program through a process of experimentation and guidance from the principles of the Oxford Group. Today, the 12-step approach continues to be a vital resource for individuals seeking recovery from addictive and compulsive behaviors, with its impact and success widely recognized by treatment centers and organizations like SAMHSA.

What is the 12-step Program?

The 12-step program serves as a set of guiding principles for individuals who are struggling with various forms of addiction, compulsions, or behavioral issues.

The 12-step program was first established by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and has since been adapted for a number of different support groups, including Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Debtors Anonymous.

However, the question remains: who exactly was responsible for creating the 12-step program?

The Birth of Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly known as AA, is a powerful global support network for those seeking to overcome alcoholism. This incredible organization has been providing hope and recovery for more than 85 years, since its founding by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith in 1935.

Founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob / Credit: neflaa.org
Founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob / Credit: neflaa.org

According to the AA official website, Bill Wilson, a successful stockbroker, had struggled with alcoholism for many years before he had a life-changing spiritual experience in 1934. This experience fueled his passion to help others facing the same struggles, and he found an ally in Dr. Bob Smith, a surgeon who was also grappling with alcoholism.

The two men formed a close friendship, combining their experiences and principles of spirituality, honesty, and self-reflection to create the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. These steps have become a roadmap for individuals to overcome alcoholism and achieve a life of sobriety and peace.

In June 1935, Bill and Dr. Bob held the first AA meeting in Akron, Ohio, attended by several alcoholics seeking a solution to their problem. The AA program quickly gained popularity and spread to cities across the United States. Today, AA is a worldwide organization with over two million members in over 180 countries.

When Other 12 Step Programs Were Founded

Dates of when 12 step programs were founded.
12 Step ProgramDate Founded
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)1935
Al-Anon / Alateen1951
Narcotics Anonymous (NA)1953
Gamblers Anonymous (GA)1957
Overeaters Anonymous (OA)1960
N/A – Neurotics Anonymous1964
Families Anonymous1970
Debtors Anonymous (DA)1971
Emotions Anonymous (EA)1971
Nar-Anon / Narateen1971
Pills Anonymous (PA)1972
Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA or ACOA)1973-1978
CoSex and Love Addicts Anonymous (COSLAA)1976
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA)1976
Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA)1977
Sexaholics Anonymous (SA)1979
Cocaine Anonymous (CA)1982
Nicotine Anonymous (NicA)1982
Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA)1982
Survivors of Incest Anonymous (SIA)1982
Workaholics Anonymous (WA)1983
Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA)1986
Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA)1987
Clutterers Anonymous (CLA)1989
Marijuana Anonymous (MA)1989
Sexual Recovery Anonymous (SRA)1993
Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA)1994
Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA)1998
Heroin Anonymous (HA)2004
Underearners Anonymous (UA)2005
Racists Anonymous (RA)2015

The Evolution of the 12 Steps

The evolution of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a remarkable story of hope and determination. “The Program”, which has become a cornerstone of the organization and a widely recognized model for addiction recovery, was born out of the personal struggles of its co-founders, Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. These two recovering alcoholics were determined to find a solution to their own addictions and help others do the same.

The Oxford Group was a Christian organization that placed a strong emphasis on spirituality, self-reflection, and serving others, and these values are reflected in the 12 steps. Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. honed the program until it became the 12-step program that is still used today.

The 12 steps were first documented in the “Big Book” of AA, officially titled “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism,” which was published in 1939. This book has become the main source for AA meetings and is widely quoted in all AA and other 12-step literature. The “Big Book” has even been recognized for its significance by the Library of Congress, which named it one of the 88 “Books that shaped America.”

Today, the 12 steps of AA have evolved into a widely recognized model for addiction recovery, inspiring numerous other 12-step programs and serving as a guide for individuals seeking to overcome addiction and achieve a life of sobriety. The program continues to offer hope and support to millions of individuals struggling with alcoholism and other forms of addiction around the world. It is a testament to the hard work and dedication of Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. and their unwavering commitment to helping others find recovery from addiction.

Fun Fact:

When someone uses the term ‘Friends of Bill’ or ‘Friends of Bill W.’, it’s a discreet way of saying that someone is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. The term has found its way into various contexts such as cruise ships, biker gatherings, and other public events as a subtle call for mutual support or a sign of shared sobriety.


Alcoholics Anonymous. (n.d.). Our History. Retrieved from https://www.aa.org/aa-history

Books that Shaped America. LoC. Retrieved from www.loc.gov/exhibits/books-that-shaped-america/1900-to-1950.html#obj24

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