Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on January 1, 2020.

Beyond the Burns

Remembering Alan Breslau: engineer, musician, author, and a tireless advocate for burn survivors around the world 
Alan Breslau, the founder of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, passed away in New Zealand over the holidays at the age of 94. Alan leaves behind an unmatched legacy of advocacy for the support of burn survivors and the prevention of burn injuries.

Alan knew what it meant to suffer those injuries. In 1963, when he was 37, he was in a plane crash while on a business trip in Rochester, New York. Of the 43 people onboard, seven died and 36 were injured. Alan lost his nose, an ear, an eye, the top of his head, a thumb, and some of his fingers to severe burns. The lack of support and isolation during his early recovery drove him to change the world for burn survivors and create a worldwide community that includes survivors, caregivers, first responders, medical professionals, researchers, and many more.

In 1977, inspired by the myth of the bird that rises from the flames in a more beautiful form, Alan created the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. He worked to establish the first burn camp for children in Pennsylvania, and he created a program to bring people with burn injuries from developing countries to the United States for care at no cost. Alan established the first World Burn Congress in 1988.

I first met Alan and his wife, Delwyn, at a World Burn Congress a number of years ago, and I can still recall my first impression of him. Alan would have been in his early 80s. We talked about the NFPA campaign that advocated for fire-safe cigarettes and the important role that burn survivors played in successfully seeing every state in the country pass legislation that made cigarettes less likely to ignite. He expressed gratitude and a subdued excitement that the effort would mean fewer people dying or experiencing life-altering burns—in fact, he had testified before the US Senate years before as part of the early attempts to require fire-safe cigarettes.

Later at the event, Alan played the piano to a rousing ovation from attendees—in addition to his training as a chemical engineer, he was an accomplished musician. A simple song or two represented his approach to life. No plane crash was going to stop him from doing the things he loved. Not only had he inspired a whole new way of living for burn survivors, he did so while continuing to play the piano, write books, play tennis, and pursue all the other passions he enjoyed. Over the years, I watched and listened as hundreds of people at the World Burn Congress greeted Alan by telling him how he had changed their lives. Like Alan, they weren’t just surviving, they were thriving.

Today we carry forward the work Alan began. I am proud to have been associated with the Phoenix Society since I arrived at NFPA 15 years ago and to serve on the Phoenix Society’s Board of Directors. The Phoenix Society is now recognized around the world as the leading organization for burn support, prevention, and advocacy. NFPA supports the Phoenix Society for its World Burn Congress, an event that has grown in size and influence to become the premier gathering of the global burn community. The NFPA Faces of Fire public awareness and advocacy campaigns, aimed at reducing loss from fire and electrical injuries, are created in collaboration with the Phoenix Society. Those campaigns embody the spirit and vision of Alan Breslau, who I now consider to be the original face of fire. He strongly believed that some good would come of his tragedy. As it turned out, it hasn’t just been good—it’s been great. 

Lorraine Carli is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler