Elva Lawton was born in West Middletown, Pennsylvania. She worked as an elementary school teacher in Pennsylvania in 1915 before going to the University of Pittsburgh for her bachelor's degree. She earned a master's degree in 1925 and then became a high school biology and Latin teacher. She went to the University of Michigan for a doctoral degree, which she received in 1932 with a dissertation on ferns. During her studies, she was a laboratory assistant in the
Department of Botany and a researcher at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. She went on to become an assistant professor at Hunter College in New York, rising to associate professor. In 1959, she moved to the University of Washington, where she taught and curated the herbarium's collection of bryophytes (mosses and related plants). She collected mosses from throughout the American West and worked on identifying previously unknown species, with several grants from the National Science Foundation. The species Racomitrium lawtoniae and the genus Bryolawtonia are named after her. Her published works included Moss Flora of the Pacific Northwest (1971).