Upon the death of his father in 1937, Lawrence, while he was in his third year of college, became the sole supporter of his mother and of several cousins whose fathers were out of work during the Depression. He had to transfer to the New York University campus at Washington Square in order to complete his studies at the night school. Always personally fastidious and a sharp dresser, he had no time to change after work and attended classes in his work clothes. His day job was with the Pennsylvania Railroad at their Sunnyside rail yard in New York as a straw boss, an assistant foreman of a work gang. He rejected a position as clerk typist, as it paid $5 less per week. His resolve to find a way out of Sunnyside never faltered.
In 1938 Lawrence was accepted into the School of Medicine at New York University and was offered a scholarship of $200 per annum. He informed the school representative that he needed a full scholarship or he would not be able to attend. He left the meeting feeling his life’s dream fading. Fortunately, his mother came to the rescue; she sold her life insurance policies and covered the difference. This gift was the beginning of a lifelong devotion to his students, residents, young physicians, and patients at “his hospital,” Bellevue.
At medical school Lawrence was one of the poor boys who brought their lunch from home to eat under the pipes in the basement of the old Bellevue Hospital. During medical school he became a very good friend of Winthrop (“Win”) Sands, who had sold his seat on the New York Stock Exchange and had begun a career in medicine. This was a friendship that changed Lawrence’s life.
On December 8, 1941, Lawrence enlisted in the navy, but he had to sign a waiver stating that because he was 27 pounds underweight, the navy would not be responsible for any illness he incurred while in the service.