Joel Page/Associated Press
Michael Palmer at his home in Swampscott, Mass., in 2002.
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 Hospital.
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 privileges suspended.
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 1995 interview.
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 homeless.
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 addictions.
“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 time passed.
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 divorce.
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