Surgical oncology pioneer Walter Lawrence Jr. was a gifted MCV and VCU Health surgeon, a diligent cancer researcher and a staunch social justice advocate who leaned on and lived by a resolute moral compass.
His death in 2021 at age 96 inspired a push to elevate the existing esteemed Walter Lawrence Jr., M.D., Distinguished Professor of Oncology in the VCU School of Medicine even higher, to an endowed chair. Dr. Lawrence's four children, several alumni, colleagues and other friends made lead gifts to the effort.
To say Dr. Lawrence was ahead of his time as a physician and as a human being is an understatement.
Robert Winn, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center
The enhanced Lawrence Chair in Oncology ensures that the School of Medicine continues Dr. Lawrence’s legacy of pushing the boundaries of surgical oncology and cancer research. “Dr. Lawrence’s influence and impact on the Department of Surgery, Massey and the field of surgical oncology is immense — he was a master surgeon, educator and above all a gentleman who cared deeply for his patients,” said Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery at the School of Medicine. “He pioneered many of the multidisciplinary efforts in the care of patients with cancer and developed the first academic division of surgical oncology.”
Dr. Lawrence began his career as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the Korean War, where he served as chief of surgery of a MASH hospital. Speculation about his role leading to the creation of the character Hawkeye Pierce on the hit television series M*A*S*H was always just that, though it tickled him to talk about it. Following the war, Dr. Lawrence joined Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where he performed the first renal transplant in 1963.
That achievement led to his recruitment by MCV in 1966, where he became the vice chair of surgery and later chaired the first academic division of surgical oncology in the U.S. He worked alongside renowned surgeon David Hume, M.D., who performed Virginia’s first kidney transplant at MCV in 1957.
Dr. Lawrence went on to serve as the first director of the newly NCI-accredited cancer center on the MCV Campus, a position he held until retiring in 1990. His efforts underscored the importance of connecting cancer research with clinical trials and improved patient care.
He fought for diversity in student admissions and in clinical trials. Upon retirement, Dr. Lawrence threw himself into teaching. He served as professor emeritus at the School of Medicine and chaired the school’s admissions committee. He also taught medical students at Richmond’s McGuire Veterans Medical Center.
"To say Dr. Lawrence was ahead of his time as a physician and as a human being is an understatement. Long before equity became a prevalent pursuit in health care, Dr. Lawrence was a proponent of it,” said Robert Winn, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center.
“He increased access to care for individuals who, at the time, were largely marginalized by the medical community. His very legacy is about forging your own path as a clinician, following your core values and leading the change instead of allowing standards of care and operating procedures to remain cyclical and stagnant.”
If you would like to support the Walter Lawrence Jr., M.D., Chair, please contact Andrew Hartley, director of development in the Office of Medical Philanthropy and Alumni Relations, at 804-628-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.