Lois W., co-founder of Al-Anon.
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and the Twelve Step program are familiar to many of us, either from personal or family experience, or from their portrayals in movies and television. But many of us forget–if we ever knew–the brave stories of those who founded Alcoholics Anonymous (for alcoholics) and Al-Anon (for relatives and friends of alcoholics).
Lois Burnham had what she described as an "idyllic" childhood. Deeply loved by their parents, the Burnham children were taught to be compassionate and caring individuals, and to give back to the world. Lois, having a college degree, also believed in being self-sufficient and making her own way in the world. These beliefs would turn out to be invaluable in her married life.
In 1918, a couple of months before her 27th birthday, Lois married Bill Wilson shortly before he left for Europe to fight in WWI. Lois had been told some stories about Bill's drinking from other soldiers, but she became painfully aware of the extent of his drinking after he returned from Europe. Although Lois continued to work–and was in fact the primary earner–they ran into financial difficulties, in no small part due to Bill's drinking. It wasn't until 1934 that Bill was able to achieve sobriety, and in 1935, he and Dr. Bob (Smith), both recovering alcoholics, founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
In 1951, Lois and Bill founded Al-Anon, recognizing from Lois's own experiences that family members of alcoholics needed their own support groups. Although there had been other family support groups around the country, Bill felt that Lois was the person to consolidate the groups (Dr. Bob's wife, Anne, had been working with families from the start, but passed away in 1949). Started by writing to less than 100 non-alcoholics who had contacted AA for information, Al-Anon eventually grew into an organization with over 387,000 members and more than 29,000 groups around the world.
Although she was known only as Lois W. for much of her adult life (respecting the privacy traditions of both AA and Al-Anon), her anonymity was broken in 1971 when Bill died and the New York Times printed an obituary. But even thereafter, she continued to be known as Lois W. within Al-Anon. Lois died in 1988 at 97 years old.
For more information on Lois W. and Bill W., as well as their home Stepping Stones, please visit the Stepping Stones website.