Wrestling With a Dragon
As a matriculating Dartmouth freshman in the fall of 1898, Robert Holbrook Smith almost certainly arrived in Hanover by horse and buggy. Women at the time were wearing floor-length skirts and broad-brimmed hats. Victoria was queen of England. Webster Hall had not yet been built. The airplane hadn’t been invented.
Nearly nine decades later, when I stumbled into my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Smith and his AA cofounder Bill Wilson secured a prominent place in my daily thoughts.
At least 100 times through the years I have read “Doctor Bob’s Nightmare,” the chapter in AA’s basic text in which Smith tells his story: a rural Vermont childhood, his drinking years at Dartmouth and beyond, and his storied encounter with Wilson in 1935 that led to their recovery from alcoholism and the establishment of the world’s first 12-step program.
Whenever I read that chapter, I visualize Dartmouth Hall, the Green, the Bema, and Hanover’s Wheelock and Main streets, and I wonder about Smith’s experience as an undergraduate. Was it anything like mine? Was he anxious and socially awkward? Did he drink to take the edge off those feelings or to fashion an identity for himself as a hard-drinking sophisticate? Did he pull crazy stunts or defy authority to get attention? Did crippling hangovers affect his studies?
AA’s literature offers few details on this period of his life. So, when Covid grounded me in 2020-21, I decided to do some digging.
Starting with alumni records in Rauner Special Collections Library, I found a few photos but little new information. I talked with the archivist at Smith’s high school, St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont, and consulted Smith’s papers at Brown University. Each source pointed to others, and before I was through I had been in touch with Smith’s fraternity and two historical museums (one in his boyhood home in St. Johnsbury and another in Akron, Ohio, where Smith and his wife, Anne Ripley, settled and raised their family). I also consulted AA’s archives in New York. For good measure I had another look at the 1978 movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House.
Smith’s serious drinking began at Dartmouth—as soon as he was out from under parental control and away from small-town Vermont society. He was well liked by his peers at the College. His transcripts have been lost, but he reportedly earned creditable grades.
Though the toga party didn’t start trending until the 1950s, Smith’s generation of fraternity brothers partied hard in their own way. Interviewed years later by biographers, friends remembered Smith’s primary extracurricular activity as drinking beer and hard cider. He distinguished himself at parties with an ability to pour a whole bottle of beer straight down his throat without visible signs of swallowing. They called it his “patent throat.”
Classmate E.B. Watson, who later became a professor at Dartmouth, said Smith was well liked and “unpretentious,” adding that while Smith drank excessively as an undergraduate, “he did not become a slave to alcohol until his graduate schooling.”
Smith honed other nonessential life skills as well, becoming highly competitive at bridge, poker, other card games, billiards, tennis, and horseshoes. He was probably an undergrad when he got the full-sleeve tattoo that covered his left arm: a dragon rendered in blue with red fire, entwined with a nautical compass. A classmate who saw him years later by a pool in Delray Beach, Florida, observed that the massive tat extended across his chest and onto the other arm. “He had to have been drunk to have it put there,” Smith’s son later told biographers, “and you didn’t do something that complicated in a day.”
While there is no record of Smith’s major course of study, it is safe to say his high school and College education involved 12 years of Greek and nine of Latin. In 1901 and 1902 he lived in the Kappa Kappa Kappa (now Kappa Pi Kappa) house. In those years Tri-Kap was a literary and debating society. The 1902 Aegis indicates Smith was associated with the Hanover Country Club, which opened in 1899 with nine holes. He also sang with the St. Thomas Church choir, as he had with his high school glee club.
The Dartmouth tradition of spur-of-the-moment road trips was already a thing in 1899—a decade before the Ford Model T hit the streets.
Smith and Phil Thompson, class of 1902, took a trip to Montpelier, Vermont, that involved jumping a freight train at White River Junction, Vermont. On a whim, the sophomores had decided they couldn’t miss “Dewey Day”—an over-the-top hometown hero’s welcome organized for Adm. George Dewey after his victory at the Battle of Manila in the Spanish-American War.
Thompson recalled the escapade in an interview published in a 1980 book, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers: “We found a car with an open door and jumped in, not knowing whether the train was going to Montreal or Boston, upriver or down. Fortunately, it went up the Connecticut River, stopping at every little station along the way as it got colder and darker.
“We made it to Montpelier the next day. When we arrived, covered with straw, and somewhat disheveled, Bob decided we needed a few beers, though it was only around breakfast time.”
A Downward Slide
After graduation, Smith worked as a traveling industrial salesman, then started medical school at the University of Michigan, where his drunkenness and poor academic results got him kicked out. He barely managed to complete his studies at Rush Medical College; studied for a time in Rochester, Minnesota, under the Mayo brothers; then married and settled in Akron, where he practiced surgery for many years at City Hospital.
Friends told biographers that Smith chose a surgical specialization because it gave him better control over his schedule and enabled him to drink every day, freed from the risk of round-the-clock calls from patients that are the general practitioner’s lot. By all accounts he became what AA members call a “functioning drunk”—a respected professional who drags himself to work, adequately carries out his duties, and then retreats to solitary drinking and oblivion until it’s time to get up the next morning and do it all over again. This was Smith’s routine for decades, including the Prohibition years between 1920 and 1933.
Smith’s College friends heard nothing of him for 34 years after graduation. But in 1936, less than a year after finally gaining sobriety, he communicated with his class secretary. A brief note in the November 1936 DAM reads: “Some of you fellows have been wondering about Bob Smith, but you can let up on it now. Bob says that while he has been in Hanover many times, he could never make it at reunion time. He hopes now to be present in June 1937.”
Smith didn’t make it to that reunion—or any other reunion—but he kept in touch with several classmates from that point on. In 1942, hoping to solicit news, the secretary sent letters to several classmates. Smith responded by sending him a copy of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous—authored largely by AA cofounder Wilson in close consultation with Smith—which includes the chapter in which Smith candidly told his own story.