2013-11-09 09:37:36 UTC
The New York Times
November 7, 2013
Michael Palmer, Doctor Who Became Top Author, Dies at 71
By PAUL VITELLO
Dr. Michael Palmer, a physician who began writing tightly plotted thrillers at
his kitchen table in 1978 to escape the inner chaos of alcohol and drug
addiction, in the process finding a worldwide audience (and sobriety) as the
author of top sellers like "Extreme Measures" and "Natural Causes," died on Oct.
30 in Queens. He was 71.
Dr. Palmer had a heart attack the previous day while going through customs at
Kennedy International Airport. He was on his way home to Swampscott, Mass., from
an African safari vacation, said Jennifer Enderlin, senior vice president and
publisher of St. Martin's Press, who was his longtime editor. He died at Jamaica
Dr. Palmer published 19 books. "Extreme Measures," his fourth novel, became a
movie in 1996 starring Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman. He sold about five million
books worldwide, and his books were translated into 35 languages, Ms. Enderlin
said. His 20th novel, "Resistant," is to be published in May.
Dr. Palmer began writing during what he described as the nadir of his life. An
internist and former chief of medicine at Falmouth Hospital on Cape Cod, he had
become hooked on self-prescribed pain killers and alcohol in the 1970s after a
divorce and a series of knee surgeries. In 1978, he was charged with writing
false prescriptions, sentenced to two years of probation and had his hospital
A year later he began injecting himself with Demerol. "I was thinking at some
point I will kill myself, and I almost did," he told The Associated Press in a
Psychiatric help, and the support of fellow physicians in recovery, got him past
the worst of it. (He never lost his medical license.) Writing suspense
thrillers, and working out the internal logic of their intricate plots, became a
kind of long-term therapy before it became his profession. "I loved the feeling
of being in control when my life was not," he said.
And, he added, "When you find you don't like a character, you just type four
letters and he's dead."
Dr. Palmer said he quit drinking and taking drugs in late 1979, while writing
his first novel, which flopped commercially; by 1982, he had published a second,
"The Sisterhood," about a secret society of mercy-killing nurses, to admiring
reviews. That was followed, in 1985, by "Side Effects," another tale of sinister
medical conspirators, and, in 1991, by "Extreme Measures," in which an
emergency-room doctor uncovers a plot to test a dangerous new drug on the
He first spoke publicly about his addiction in 1991, admitting later that - at
least initially - he did it mainly for mercenary reasons. Planning a promotional
tour for "Extreme Measures," publicists cautioned him not to expect attention
from major media outlets because, they said, Michael Crichton and Robin Cook had
already tapped the novelty appeal of doctor-authors.
Dr. Palmer was by then writing full time, working a flexible schedule as an
emergency room doctor and counseling other physicians with drug and alcohol
problems. He asked the publicists if the media outlets might be more interested
if they knew that the author of this medical thriller was not just a doctor but
also a recovering addict and alcoholic who helped other doctors overcome their
"That's very hard-edged," his publicists replied - meaning, yes - as Dr. Palmer
recounted the exchange in a 1996 interview.
Starting in 1991, he gave many interviews to newspaper, television and radio
reporters - both to publicize his latest book and to promote awareness about
substance abuse among doctors, an issue he embraced with increasing urgency as
After retiring from clinical practice in the mid-1990s, Dr. Palmer became
associate director of the Massachusetts Medical Society's Physician Health
Services, a nonprofit organization that provides doctors with confidential
mental health and substance abuse help.
Michael Stephen Palmer was born in Springfield, Mass., on Oct. 9, 1942, the
first of three children of Milton and May Palmer. His father was an optometrist.
He graduated from Wesleyan College in Middletown, Conn. (where he was a
classmate of Robin Cook), and received his medical degree from Case Western
Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.
Dr. Palmer is survived by his longtime companion, Robin Broady; three sons,
Matthew, Daniel and Luke; two sisters, Donna Prince and Susan Terry; and four
grandchildren. His marriages to Judith Grass and Noelle Shaughnessy ended in
Scattered among the many tributes to Dr. Palmer posted on message boards and
blog sites, several, signed "Anonymous MD," thanked him for his counseling work
and seized the chance to reach a mostly invisible population.
"We are a huge and diverse community of recovering physicians," one Anonymous
MD said. "We will be pleased to show you the way. Just reach out."