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Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks
Grapevine, Inc, May, 1951
drunk is lying on a bed in a hospital, and a doctor is sitting
beside the bed. The drunk is talking earnestly to the doctor.
“...a wave of depression came over me,” the drunk is saying.
“I realized that I was powerless - hopeless - that I couldn’t
help myself, and that nobody else could help me. I was in
black despair. And in the midst of this, I remembered about
this God business.. .and I rose up in bed and said, “If
there be a God, let him show himself now!”
doctor specializing in alcoholism hears all kinds of crazy
stories from drunks in all stages of de-fogging. You’d expect
him to have his tongue in his cheek at this point.)
of a sudden, there was a light,” the drunk goes on, “a blinding
white light that filled the whole room. a tremendous wind
seemed to be blowing all around me and right through me.
I felt as if I were standing on a high mountain top..."
think a doctor would become hardened after listening to
these drunks rave day after day. It’s a discouraging, thankless
drunk continued: “I felt that I stood in the presence of
God. I felt an immense joy. And I was sure beyond all doubt
that I was free from my obsession with alcohol. The only
condition was that I share the secret of this freedom with
other alcoholics and help them to recover.”
drunk paused and turned to the doctor. “Ever since it happened,
I’ve been lying here wondering whether or not I’ve lost
my mind. Tell me, doctor - am I insane - or not?”
drunk was Bill W.
for Bill — fortunately for A.A. — fortunately for the thousands
of us who have come after - the doctor was Dr. Silkworth.
By great good luck - or by the grace of God (depending upon
your viewpoint) - the doctor was Dr. Silkworth.
would have been so easy to dismiss Bill’s experience as
hallucination, one of the many possible vagaries of a rum-soaked
brain. And a disparaging word from the doctor right at this
point could have choked off the tender shoot of faith and
killed it. Alcoholics Anonymous might have got started somewhere
else, somehow. Or it might not. Certainly it wouldn’t have
started here. Very possibly the life of every one of us
A.A.’s hung on the doctor’s answer to the question, “Am
was there that Dr. Silkworth made the first of his indispensable
contributions to A.A. He knew - by an insight that no amount
of medical training alone can give a man - that what had
happened to Bill was real, and important. “I don’t know
what you’ve got,” he told Bill, “but whatever it is, hang
on to it. You are not insane. And you may have the answer
to your problem.” The encouragement of the man of science,
as much as the spiritual experience itself, started A.A.
on its way.
Dr. Silkworth died of a heart attack in his home in New
York early in the morning of March 22nd, even those A.A.s
who knew him best and loved him most awoke to the realization
that we had lost a greater friend, a greater doctor, a greater
man than we had ever realized. It was particularly hard
to appreciate the greatness of the man while Dr. Silkworth
was yet with us, because of his profound personal modesty
and the disarming gentleness, the unassuming and almost
invisible skill, with which he accomplished his daily miracles
of medical and spiritual healing.
know that he was a prodigious and relentless worker, but
still it was a shock to discover that in his lifetime of
work with those who suffer our disease, he had talked with
51,000 alcoholics - 45,000 at Towns Hospital and 6,000 at
he was never in a hurry. And he had no “formulas,” no stock
answers. Somehow he found out very early that the unexpected
was to be expected in alcoholism, and for a man who knew
as many of the answers as he did, he came to each new case
with a wonderfully open mind... the great and classic example
of which is his handling of Bill.
this gentle little doctor with his white hair and his china
blue eyes - child’s eyes, saints eyes - was a man of immense
personal courage. It must be remembered that he went much
farther than merely encouraging Bill’s faith in his spiritual
experience, he saw to it that Bill was permitted to come
back into Towns Hospital to share his discovery with other
alcoholics. Today - when “carrying the message to others”
has become a very respectable part of an undeniably effective
program - it is easy to forget that “carrying the message”
in the beginning was a highly unorthodox undertaking. It
had no precedent and no history of success; most authorities
would have turned thumbs down on it as just plain screwball.
we forget how our technique has been mellowed and refined
by the wisdom of experience. We know that the blinding light
and the overwhelming rush of God-consciousness are not necessary,
that they are indeed very rare phenomena and that the great
majority of recoveries among us are of the much less spectacular
gradual and educational kind. But in the beginning, the
“hot flash” was stressed - nay, insisted upon.
Silkworth had his professional reputation to lose, and nothing
whatever to gain, by permitting and encouraging this unheard-of
procedure of one God-bitten drunk trying to pass on his
strange story of a light and a vision to other alcoholics
- most of whom at that time received it with lively hostility
or magnificent indifference.
Bill met Dr. Bob, and the first few drunks, incredulously,
began to make their incredible recoveries. The infant society,
without a book, without a program really, and without a
reputation or standing of any kind - began its growth. We
forget how halting and feeble that early growth was, how
bedeviled with obstacles in a world skeptical of spiritual
experience and often hostile to it.
Silkworth from the beginning threw all of his weight as
a doctor, a neurologist, a specialist in alcoholism, into
aiding the progress of this mongrel and highly unpedigreed
society in every possible way. He committed social and professional
heresy right and left in order to publish and implement
his burning faith in a movement which as yet only half-suspected
its own destiny and which had to grope rather blindly to
find terms for its own faith in itself.
there was need for money to publish the book Alcoholics
Anonymous, Dr. Silkworth used his personal influence without
stint to help raise the money. As a preface to the book
he wrote the chapter titled, “The Doctors Opinion,” giving
A.A. his praise and approval without reservation or qualification-
at a time when there were only a thin one hundred of us
was indeed our first friend, and indeed a friend in need.
His faith in us was firmer than our faith in ourselves.
Bill says: “Without Silky’s help, we never would have got
going - or kept going!” Again, his contribution was indispensable.
did he do it?
answer to that is the answer to Dr. Silkworth’s whole career:
he loved drunks. Why he loved drunks is a secret known only
to God and the doctor - and perhaps the doctor himself did
not wholly understand the mystery. “It’s a gift,” he used
to say, his eyes twinkling.
discovered his gift very early in his medical practice.
He was graduated from Princeton in 1896, and took his medical
degree at New York University in 1900. Then he interned
at Bellevue; and it was while working at Bellevue that he
found he was drawn to alcoholics, and they to him.
nobody else could calm a disturbed drunk, Dr. Silkworth
could. And he found, rather to his amazement, that even
the toughest and most case-hardened of drunks would talk
to him freely - and that many of them, even more amazingly,
wept. It became evident that he exerted - or that there
was exerted through him - some kind of thawing influence
on the life-springs of the alcoholic.
the years that followed were full of discouragement. There
were two years on the psychiatric staff at the U.S. Army
Hospital at Plattsburg, N.Y., during the first world war,
followed byseveral years on the staff of the Neurological
Institute of the Presbyterian Hospital in New York. Twice
he entered into private practice, only to be drawn back
into hospital work with alcoholics. His work continued on
at Charles B. Towns Hospital, New York, a private hospital
specializing in alcoholism and drug addiction. Here, Dr.
Silkworth’s special skill with alcoholics - and his growing
understanding and love for them - had full scope. Yet he
estimated that the percentage of real recoveries among the
alcoholics he worked with was only about 2 per cent. The
large number of hopeless cases, and the deep degrees of
human tragedy and suffering involved, weighed heavily upon
the gentle doctor. He was often profoundly discouraged.
came Bill - and A.A.
who has known the doctor intimately over many years has
said this about it: “Silky never told me this. It’s my own
opinion. But I believe that A.A. was Silky’s reward. All
those years he plodded along - treating drunks medically
- defending them - loving them - and not getting anywhere
much. And then God said: “All right, little man, I’m going
to give you and your drunks a lift!” And when the lighting
struck, there was Silky, right where he belonged - in the
midst of it!”
in his career, at a time when alcoholism was almost universally
regarded as a willful and deliberate persistence in a nasty
vice, Dr. Silkworth came to believe in the essential goodness
of the alcoholic. “These people do not want to do the things
they do,” he insisted. “They drink compulsively, against
their will.” One of the early drunks whom Dr. Silkworth
treated, a big husky six-footer, dropped on his knees before
the doctor, tears streaming down his face, begging for a
drink. “I said to myself then and there,” Dr. Silkworth
related, - this is not just a vice or habit. This is compulsion,
this is pathological craving, this is disease!”
loved drunks - but there was nothing in the least degree
fatuous or sentimental about that love. It could be an astringent
love, an almost surgical love. There was the warmest of
light in those blue eyes, but still they could burn right
through to the bitter core of any lie, any sham. He could
see clean through egotism, bombast, self-pity and similar
miserable rags that we drunks use so cleverly to hide our
central fear and shame.
this he did - without hurting anyone. While insisting rigorously
that recovery was possible only on a moral basis - “You
cannot go two ways on a one-way street” - he never preached,
never denounced, never even really criticized. He brought
you, somehow, to make your own judgements of yourself, the
only kind of judgments that count with an alcoholic. How
did he do it? “It’s a gift.” Just coming into his presence
was like walking into light. He not only had vision - he
is not room here - nor has there been opportunity for the
necessary research - to consider his status as a medical
man. It can be said that he held a position of very high
eminence in his profession. He encountered opposition to
some of his views, and he was latterly the recipient of
very widespread recognition and praise for his work. It
is literally true that he was the world’s greatest practical
authority on alcoholism. His pioneering work in the concept
of alcoholism as a manifestation of allergy has been validated
by later experience and has been the subject of a great
deal of medical interest and research just recently.
Silkworth’s was a great contribution to the establishment
and development of the alcoholic treatment center at Knickerbocker
Hospital in New York. In later years, he was sought out
for consultation and advice by doctors and by those in charge
of state and city alcoholic treatment projects. There was
a steady stream of visitors, some of them from foreign lands.
Also, every day, there were long distance telephone calls
from those seeking further help, those seeking his advice
- all over the U.S.
remain these things to be noted: Dr. Silkworth was a small
man, well under medium height. His complexion was ruddy.
His remarkable eyes have been mentioned. His hair was snow
white and no member of A.A. knew him otherwise, for he was
already well along in years when our relationship began.
You would say that the habitual expression of his face was
a smile you thought about it, and realized that the features
were really nearly always in repose, and the impression
of a smile arose actually from a certain light about his
face. ( Too many of us have noticed it to be mistaken!)
loved to be well dressed - was, in fact, quite dapper -
and in this he was not without a certain whimsical and self-
recognized vanity. Nurses - the hospital staff - everyone
who worked with him quite plainly and simply adored him.
He was unfailingly gentle, courteous, thoughtful. He was
happily married, and he and Mrs. Silkworth shared a delight
in growing things - in flowers - in gardening.
was utterly and completely indifferent to money, to position,
to personal gain or prestige of any kind.
was a saintly man.
drunks can thank Almighty God that such a man was designated
by the divine Providence to inspire and guide us, individually
and as a group, on the long way back to sanity.
now - in this anonymously written journal of an anonymous
society - I hope I may be permitted, in closing, the anomaly
of a personal note. You see, Dr. Silkworth saved my life.
I was one of those “hopeless” ones whom he reached and brought
back to life - to A.A. - and to God. And I have wanted very
much to write this tribute faithfully and well, in the name
of all those who share my debt and gratitude. And yet I
have realized from the beginning that this article will
please nobody. To those who knew and loved the saintly doctor,
it will seem insufficient. And so, some of those who didn’t
know him will think it overdone, for the truth about Dr.
Silkworth is strong medicine in a materialistic age.
dilemma would be tolerable, were it not for a third difficulty:
I have written all along in the uneasy knowledge that what
is said here is by no means pleasing to the doctor himself.
The incident of physical death certainly has not placed
him beyond knowledge of what goes on here below. And that
he will not be pleased with all this, because while he was
stern about very few things, he was sternly and seriously
opposed to the publication of his own name and fame.
take comfort, however, in the fact that his sense of humor
most certainly will have survived his recent transition
to a new home. And I feel sure that his disapproval of the
present essay will be tempered by amusement, and by the
priceless gift he gave us all so freely while he was yet
as we are - his great love.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., May 1951
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