John Lawrence was born in 1931 and was educated in Adelaide. Later, as a Rhodes Scholar in Magdalen College, Oxford, he completed a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. After a period of employment in the social work section of the Commonwealth Department of Social Services, he studied at The Australian National University and received his PhD. In 1961, he was appointed to the University of Sydney in the first Australian academic post in social administration. In 1964, he became a member of the Federal Council of the Australian Association of Social Workers.