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In memoriam: Walter Lawrence Jr., founding director of Massey Cancer Center

Lawrence, who ran a surgical hospital during the Korean War and later served as Massey’s director for more than a decade, leaves behind a ‘giant and remarkable legacy.’

Walter Lawrence Walter Lawrence Jr. in 2015. He was “a legend at VCU,” said VCU President Michael Rao. (Photo: Allen Jones, University Marketing)

By Blake Belden

Walter Lawrence Jr., M.D., who died Nov. 9 at age 96, was respected and beloved for his expertise as a surgical oncologist. He ran a surgical hospital during the Korean War, oversaw the first Division of Surgical Oncology at Virginia Commonwealth University and served as the inaugural director of VCU Massey Cancer Center for more than a decade. He inspired countless surgeons, oncologists and medical students for generations.

“Dr. Lawrence is a legend at VCU, and he was deeply committed to the success of Massey and supported everyone who followed him,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “He was a great doctor, teacher, leader and perfect gentleman who cared deeply about every human being. Dr. Lawrence embodied the patient- and student-centered culture that I so love at VCU.”

Throughout his life and career, Lawrence fought repeatedly for social justice and health equity, tirelessly advocating for inclusivity in the medical workforce and championing the increased enrollment of minority patients in clinical trials.

“The real mark Dr. Lawrence leaves behind is the mission to help those less fortunate than ourselves and to ensure that health and cancer burdens are not carried more heavily by some. And he never rested in this mission. As late as last year, he was using his platform to speak for those voices who were heard the least, ensuring that everyone has access for affordable, world-class health care,” said Robert A. Winn, M.D., director and Lipman Chair in Oncology at Massey and senior associate dean for cancer innovation at the VCU School of Medicine.

“Make no mistake, this mission that drives us here at Massey is one we will fight for every day in the name of Walter Lawrence,” Winn said. “My heart goes out to Walter’s family, and I thank them for their support of such a great man and the sacrifices they made to share him with the rest of the world.”

A desire to serve others

Lawrence was born in Chicago in 1925. His father was a primary care physician, which inspired Lawrence to pursue a medical career. As part of a training program for the U.S. Navy, he attended Dartmouth College for his undergraduate degree and then attended medical school at the University of Chicago. He completed his residency at Johns Hopkins University, followed by additional training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where he remained on staff for 10 years and went on to perform New York City’s first kidney transplant.

Driven by a desire to give back, Lawrence served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1942-46, and then with the Army from 1952-54 as the chief of surgery for the 46th Army Surgical Hospital in Korea.

In the early 1960s, Lawrence was conducting research on targeted chemotherapy at Cornell University when he was recruited by David Hume, M.D. — for whom the VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center is partly named — to lead a new Division of Surgical Oncology at the Medical College of Virginia. This was the first division of its kind at any academic medical center in the country, and Lawrence is referred to as a founding father of surgical oncology by many doctors in the field.

Following passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971 — which earmarked cancer research as a federal priority and created the National Cancer Institute as it’s known today — Lawrence was part of a small planning group that discussed the potential for developing a cancer center at MCV. In 1974, he became the founding director of VCU Massey Cancer Center. Just a year later, he led Massey to the elite status of NCI-designation, which Massey has continuously held ever since.

In 1988, Lawrence stepped down as Massey’s director but remained active as the chairman of the Division of Surgical Oncology.

“Walter always had something wise and insightful to say,” said Gordon Ginder, M.D., Massey’s director from 1997-2019. “Every time you saw him, he had a smile on his face and was always encouraging. He was a role model that we all aspire to as cancer center directors. To be thoughtful, wise, kind, know how to support others and get the most out of their efforts. That’s the type of person he always was, he took his patients and his research so seriously, but he never took himself seriously.”

In honor of his contributions to surgical oncology and cancer research and care at Massey, the Walter Lawrence Jr. Distinguished Professorship in Oncology was established by the Massey Foundation in 1989. The title is currently held by Jose Trevino, M.D., chair of surgical oncology and surgeon in chief at Massey.

In a 2005 edition of the Journal of Surgical Oncology, Harry Bear, M.D., Ph.D., a surgical oncologist and interim associate director for clinical research at Massey, paid tribute to Lawrence and said he looks up to about five people in his life as role models and heroes, one of those being Lawrence, who offered Bear his first job upon completion of his surgical residency.

“It has been a great pleasure to be close to this extraordinarily accomplished and energetic man for more than [four] decades, and it is an incredible honor to [have held] a position named for him,” wrote Bear, who previously held the professorship named for Lawrence. “If each of us could accomplish only a fraction of what he has done — and been a friend and mentor to so many and be loved by our families half as well — we would have done much indeed.”

Trevino remembers the love and passion for surgery that Lawrence brought to their meetings.

“Dr. Lawrence was the founding father of surgical oncology at VCU and was a pioneer in the advancement of surgical education, training and mentoring for students, residents, fellows and faculty,” Trevino said. “I am honored to hold his professorship and will work hard every day to fill a small place in his giant and remarkable legacy.”

'This variety makes every new day exciting'

Lawrence’s love and passion for medicine and clinical innovation never waned over eight decades. He continued to treat patients and mentor students into his 90s, and he always considered it a privilege to be able to offer medical help to those in need.

“Nothing is more fulfilling than the gratitude of another human being for your professional help, and I can assure you that if you do choose medicine, this satisfaction you will feel for medical practice will never disappoint,” Lawrence wrote to aspiring doctors in an open letter in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2016. “Every day is filled with new ideas (and problems), and every day is filled as well with wonderful interactions with patients, colleagues and, for some of us, medical students. For me, this variety makes every new day exciting.”

Lawrence served as president and chair of numerous organizations, including the American Cancer Society, the Society of Surgical Oncology, the Halsted Society, the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer and the Surgical Oncology Research Development Subcommittee of the National Cancer Institute. He was given a Life Achievement in Science Award by the Science Museum of Virginia in 2002, and he was selected as the 2020 honorary member of the American Society for Radiation Oncology.

For decades, Lawrence’s work and passion inspired philanthropic support for Massey.

Massey’s Lawrence Society recognizes donors who commit to support the future of Massey’s mission through planned giving. “Legacy gifts from generous donors to the Lawrence Society help ensure a strong future for VCU Massey Cancer Center,” Lawrence once said. “These promised future funds are crucial to our strength as a research institution and position us as a premier cancer center in Virginia.”

“For the Massey family, we saw Dr. Lawrence as the backbone of Massey Cancer Center,” said Becky Massey, an advisory board member and patient advocate. “He inspired our family to engage in financial and active volunteerism from its founding in 1974. His loss is deeply felt by our family.”

Lawrence also impacted the lives of countless patients, families and colleagues. One colleague and friend, Tina Bachas, established the Tina L. Bachas Oncology Nursing Research Awards in 2018 to honor Lawrence and his leadership during her tenure as an oncology nurse and as Massey’s first director of oncology nursing from 1971-90. The Bachas awards are given annually to advance oncology nursing-led research and evidence-based projects at Massey.

“Our entire academic community is deeply saddened to hear about the passing of our medical school’s most valued colleague. We all greatly admired Dr. Lawrence and count the medical school as fortunate to have called him one of our own,” said Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine and executive vice president for medical affairs at VCU Health. “As a pillar in our community, Dr. Lawrence’s influence will be enduring — through the field he advanced and through those he trained. Our thoughts are with his family and all those who love him, as collectively we grieve the loss of this remarkable person.

“He was truly a precious gift to the world.”

This story originally was published by Massey Cancer Center under the headline “Massey legend and founding director leaves behind inspirational legacy.”

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