Lois Wilson, co-founder, Al-Anon Family Groups, and wife of Bill Wilson, was born Lois Burnham on March 4, 1891, at 182 Clinton Street, Brooklyn Heights, New York. Her father, Dr. Clark Burnham, was a gynecologist and surgeon. Her mother, Matilda Spelman, was a young woman of refinement who had worked as a school teacher.
Lois was the eldest of six children. Her siblings were Barbara, Katherine, Rogers, Lyman, and the youngest, Matilda, died in infancy.
In her memoir, Lois Remembers, published by Al-Anon Family Groups, Lois recalls her childhood as, “idyllic.”
The children were deeply loved by their parents. They were brought up to be caring, thoughtful, and of use in the world. They witnessed that as their father provided pro bono medical assistance to some members of the Swedenborgian Church to which they belonged.
The Burhams gave their children excellent educations. They went to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn—among the first wave of American schools to offer pre-school “Kindergarten,” which was originally established in Germany. Later, the children were enrolled in the Quaker Friends School. Lois graduated from college at The Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, where she played guard each year on the basketball team.
Her primary interests were artistic—from fine art to interior design. Those interests led her to take drawing classes at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. She was an avid theatergoer and a devotee of classical music, following the New York Philharmonic Orchestra most of her life. The archives at Stepping Stones have boxes of the Wilsons’ annotated sheet music as well as Lois’ theatrical and musical programs on which she indicated who accompanied her to performances.
The impressions of Lois’ home life are ones of excitement and fun. She was adventuresome, not always caring a great deal about getting dressed up. She referred to herself as a bit of a, “tomboy.” This aspect of her personality expressed itself more during the family’s long sojourns in southern Vermont, where her father cared for his New York patients who were summering there.
Her parents were part of the social scene in Manchester, VT and were friends with many well-known people of the day, including Abraham Lincoln’s son, whose children were among the younger Burnhams’ playmates. Some of the children’s summertime playmates—especially Rogers—were the Thacher boys from the prominent Albany, New York family. Edwin or “Ebby” Thacher would become a close friend of Lois’ future husband, Bill Wilson, and be instrumental in Bill’s sobriety.
Lois' younger brother Rogers found a pal in Bill Wilson, and in 1913, he introduced him to his sister. Lois was more than four years older than Bill and did not regard him as anything other than her brother's friend. But as the summers went on, she and Bill eventually found many common interests and fell in love. The couple became secretly engaged in 1915 and married on January 24, 1918, before young officer Wilson shipped off to Europe in the First World War.
When Lois married Bill, she wed an upstanding young man of good character filled with exciting ideas about his future. She knew he experienced some depression. However, Lois could not foresee that he would become a drinker. She knew that he had taken his first drink early on in his military career. Later, she visited him in his New Bedford, Massachusetts station, and she was shocked when soldiers told her about Bill getting so drunk one night that they had to carry him back to the barracks.
As an educated woman, Lois believed in being independent and making her own living. She worked for the Young Women's Christian Associations (YWCA) mostly teaching crafts and design. She was promoted several times. She left the YWCA in 1917 to assistant teach at a school her aunt had established in Short Hills, New Jersey. She left that position to marry Bill.
When Bill left for England, Lois wanted to be nearer to him. She applied to serve the troops in Europe through a The Young Women's Christian Associations YWCA occupational therapy program. The YWCA decided that her affiliation with the Swedenborgian sect did not fulfill their “Christian” requirement.
She found a new opportunity and took part stateside in an accelerated occupational therapy program through the War Department. After training, she took a position at Walter Reed General Hospital (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center), Washington, D.C., where she worked in the “shell shock” ward with men suffering from what is now known as post-traumatic stress. “The experience there was often heartbreaking,” remembered Lois. “For I saw at close hand what war does to young men, and I kept wondering what it was doing to Bill.”
When Bill returned from France in March, Lois landed a position at Brooklyn Navy Hospital as a physical therapist, making $150 a month—$45 more than Bill earned in his first New York job.
Throughout the post-war years the Wilson suffered multiple ectopic pregnancies making childbearing impossible. This was devastating to Lois and she knew that Bill also desperately wanted children.
Lois took breaks from working to recuperate. On and off through 1925 as Bill’s drinking problem progressed, Lois worked in hospitals, including the women’s mental health ward of Bellevue Hospital.
She and Bill applied to adopt a child, but they were unsuccessful. Lois was later devastated to hear that Bill’s drinking had come to light during a reference check.
At first, Lois tried not to be concerned about Bill’s drinking, but it progressed to the point where she saw his ambitions dashed and his wonderful opportunities for employment and advancement shattered. He became a broken man who eventually had to seek refuge with his wife in the house of his in-laws.
Lois used many tactics over the years to try to get Bill sober. She believed she could help him stop drinking, but years later she realized how futile this was. Bill did stop in 1934. While Lois’ steadfastness undoubtedly helped Bill survive to that point, Bill would attribute his sobriety mainly factors—most especially a higher power and carrying the message to other alcoholics. To learn about how Bill recovered and began carrying the message of recovery to others, eventually cofounding Alcoholics Anonymous, click here.
In 1939 as the Depression waged on, Bill and Lois were forced to leave the house she grew up in and where they had later welcomed many newcomers to sobriety. Foreclosures had been on a temporary hold, but the house was eventually lost because they could not make the payments. The Wilsons stayed at the homes and camps of various friends over the course of two years. Lois recounts living in 51 different places not including the weekend locations.
She had been the breadwinner. She brought in a modest income from her work in department stores as a decorator and also from her consultations with private clients. While working at Macy's, she wrote an article on veneered furniture that was published by the popular House and Garden magazine.
Living like nomads was difficult for Lois. She did her best and maintained her dignity throughout the ordeal but sometimes despaired that they might be homeless for a very long time. Alcoholics Anonymous groups began to pass a “Lois Wilson Home Replacement Fund” basket at some meetings.
In 1941 an extraordinary thing happened. A generous offer was made by an acquaintance for the Wilsons to purchase a home in Westchester County, New York. Due to this magnanimous gesture, the Wilsons moved in to the 1920 Dutch Colonial Revival on one acre in Bedford Hills, New York. It took 23 years, but they finally had a home of their own. They would first dub it “Bil-Lo’s Break” and later rename it “Stepping Stones.”
In the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous, family members (typically wives, as most A.A. members were men) went along to the meeting that were usually held in homes. Sometimes Lois would go outside to visit with wives parked in cars waiting for their husbands. Sometimes the spouses would get together in the kitchen for coffee. This approach helped wives support their husbands but did not provide an equivalent forum for wives to share their own experiences.
There had been several family groups or meetings around the country. Anne Smith, wife of A.A. co-founder Dr. Bob, had also reached out to wives and families from the very beginning.
However, a formal family group’s structure, literature, and an informational clearinghouse did not exist. Bill encouraged Lois to take on consolidating the groups into an organization. After Anne Smith died in 1949, Lois has some reluctance about moving forward. This was not because she did not recognize the need, but because she was 60 and was involved in many activities, including hosting guests and engaging in artistic pursuits and gardening at Stepping Stones. But Lois' strong sense of service prevailed.
At the end of the 1951 at the A.A. General Service Conference, she gathered the A.A. Delegates' wives and local family group members at Stepping Stones to discuss moving forward with a formal organization based on the understanding that family members of alcoholics have to deal with their own issues related to the alcoholism and sobriety of their loved ones.
She advocated using an adaptive version of A.A.’s 12 Steps to help them cope.
Working from Lois' upstairs desk in the memorabilia “gallery” at Stepping Stones, Lois and Anne B., a nearby friend whose husband was in A.A., wrote to 87 non-alcoholic groups who had reached out to A.A. The letters had come from the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Australia and South Africa. Forty-eight wrote back interested in being a part of the new fellowship.
Both Lois and Anne B. began an effort to formally coordinate numerous family groups around the country. The Central Clearinghouse, as it was called, was initiated at Stepping Stones, which served as its first headquarters. The Clearinghouse provided assistance, information, and materials for the groups.
Eventually, Lois polled the groups, and the Clearinghouse was renamed Al-Anon Family Groups.
It now has over 29,000 groups worldwide and a membership of over 387,000.
Lois founded the Stepping Stones Foundation in 1979 and served as its first president for almost a decade. Other founding trustees included Nell Wing, a dear friend of the Wilsons. Nell was not a member of A.A. but she was a longtime secretary for the organization and worked directly for Bill for many years. She was also A.A.’s first Archivist opening the A.A. Archive in 1975. She helped organize Lois and Bill’s personal papers numbering more than 100,000 and including early A.A. and Al-Anon documents. Today the Stepping Stones Foundation Archives continues to be resource for scholars, researchers, authors, and members. Support from friends is being sought to make it available online. Learn more about the Archive by clicking here.
As a standalone non-profit, 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization, Stepping Stones Foundation, carries out the mission Lois set forth, preserves the home, grounds, archives and collections, and welcomes visitors to reserve tours and learn about the legacy of Bill and Lois in the field of recovery from alcoholism.
Lois passed away on October 5, 1988, at 97 and a half years of age. She wanted to live to be 100 and almost did. She was present and energetic throughout her later years and enjoyed good health for most of them. She traveled extensively and spoke at 12-Step conferences, round-ups and groups around the world. As her health waned, she told her caregiver that she was “ready to go see her Bill.”
Lois Wilson was one of the 20th century's most important women as evidenced by New York State including Stepping Stones on the New York Women's’ Heritage Trail. Some may feel Lois’ life was overshadowed by Bill’s, but, in recent years, she has become more widely recognized for her unique contribution to humanity.
Her tireless efforts and vision made Al-Anon the strong organization it is today and is the reason it continues to attract members through its message of hope and renewal.
Visit the Al-Anon Family Groups website at www.al-anon.alateen.org for more information.
For more information on Lois Wilson, visit the Stepping Stones shop ,where we offer her memoir, Lois Remembers, and other educational books.