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© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., August 1957
television recently, I watched as the American Medical Association
in convention installed its new president. At first thinking
it might be a routine affair, I nearly switched to a "whodunit."
I'm now very glad that I did not, for those doctors gave
me a most memorable and moving hour.
got the new president to make his inauguration address.
He said little of the science of medicine. To my surprise
he pointed his talk -- just as we often do in AA meetings
-- straight at the newcomers, in this case the young doctors
just entering practice. He told them that no doctor however
well trained scientifically, could get far until he was
able to make sick people feel that he understood them as
human beings; and that every real doctor had to be possessed
of the deepest dedication and faith. Such was his theme,
and how he did go to town with it. He certainly "carried
the message," and I saw as seldom before that we AAs
certainly have no monopoly on the practice of Step Twelve.
citations for distinguished service were given, one of them
to a layman for his outstanding work among the nation's
infirm and disabled. He had proven to thousands of sufferers
that they need no longer be emotionally or spiritually crippled
and that some sort of useful and gainful work could always
be theirs. Pointing out hat self-pity is a prevalent ailment
of the crippled, he quoted the Persian who had no shoes:
"I wept because I had no shoes until I saw a man who
had no feet!" The beaming man behind the lectern knew
whereof he spoke, for he himself had no legs; he had been
on artificial limbs for years. Clearly dedication, fortitude,
and faith had been his reliance. It was for these things
that the AMA had given him such a signal recognition.
gathering of doctors, so spiritually centered, set me thinking.
I keenly realized that doctoring is mainly a spiritual vocation
and that the vast majority of physicians really join the
profession to serve their fellow human beings.
AAs are apt to set a "triple A" rating on ourselves
and our Fellowship. But when the names of certain doctors
come to mind, doctors who devoted themselves to us in our
pioneering time, I wonder how many of us could really match
their humility and their dedication.
my own doctor, William D. Silkworth. In our forthcoming
history book, AA Comes of Age, I have drawn a word portrait
of him which runs in part as follows;
we looked back over those early scenes in New York, we saw
often in the midst of them the benign little doctor who
loved drunks, William Duncan Silkworth, then physician-in-chief
of the Charles B. Towns Hospital in New York, and the man
who we now realize was very much a founder of AA. From him
we learned the nature of our illness. And he supplied us
with the tools with which to puncture the toughest alcoholic
ego, those shattering phrases by which when described our
illness: 'the obsession of the mind' that compels us to
drink and 'the allergy of the body' that condemns us to
go mad or die. Without these indispensable passwords, AA
could never have worked. Dr. Silkworth taught us how to
till the black soil of hopelessness, out of which every
single spiritual awakening in our Fellowship has since flowered.
In December 1934 this man of science had sat humbly by my
bed following my own sudden and overwhelming spiritual experience,
reassuring me: 'No, Bill,' he had said, 'you are not hallucinating.
Whatever you have got, you had better hang on to it; it
is so much better than what you had only an hour ago.' These
were great words for the AAs to come! Who else could have
I wanted to go to work with alcoholics, he led me to them
right there in his hospital, risking his professional reputation.
six months of failure on my part to dry up any drunks, Dr.
Silkworth again reminded me of Professor William James'
observation that truly transforming spiritual experiences
are nearly always founded on calamity and collapse. 'Stop
preaching at them,' Dr. Silkworth had said, 'and give them
the hard medical facts first. This may soften them up at
depth so that they will be willing 'to do anything' to get
well. Then they may accept those moral psychology ideas
of yours, and even a Higher Power.'
years later, Dr. Silkworth had helped to convert Mr. Charles
B. Towns, the hospital's owner, into a great AA enthusiast
and had encouraged him to loan $2,500 to start preparation
of the book 'Alcoholics Anonymous' -- a sum, by the way,
which later amounted to over $4,000. Then as our only medical
friend at the time, the good doctor boldly wrote the Introduction
to our book, where it remains to this day and where we intend
to keep it always.
no physician will ever give so much devoted attention to
so many alcoholics as did Dr. Silkworth. It is estimated
that in his lifetime he saw an amazing 40,000 of them. In
the years before his death in 1951, in close cooperation
with AA and our redheaded power-house nurse, Teddy, he had
ministered to nearly 10,000 alcoholics at New York's Knickerbocker
Hospital alone. None of those he treated will ever forget
the experience, and the majority of them are sober today."
Dr. Silkworth "twelfth-stepped" 40,000 alcoholics.
Thousands of these he patiently treated long before AA when
the chance for recovery was slim. But he always had faith
that one day a way out would be found. He never tired of
drunks and their problems. A frail man, he never complained
of fatigue. During most of his career he made only a bare
living. He never sought distinction; his work was his reward.
In his last years he ignored a heart condition and he died
on the job -- right among us drunks, and with his boots
of us in AA can match this record of Dr. Silkworth's? Who
has his measure of fortitude, faith, and dedication?
when -- twenty-three years after Dr. Silkworth had treated
me for the last time -- I saw and heard and felt the spirit
that was abroad in the great AMA meeting. I thanked God
for the doctors, one of the finest groups of friends that
AA can ever have.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., August 1957
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