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Michael Palmer, 71; physician wrote medical thrillers

In his writing, “I loved the feeling of being in control when my life was not,” Dr. Palmer told the Globe.

Gregory Rec for the Globe/1997

In his writing, “I loved the feeling of being in control when my life was not,” Dr. Palmer told the Globe.

A physician who nearly lost his career to drug and alcohol dependency, Dr. Michael Palmer found his way back to his calling partly by helping heal other doctors, and by replacing his daily pills with a page of writing every night.

“By the end of the 1970s, I was in solid recovery, and by 1981, I began to reach out to find doctors whom I could help,” he told the Globe in 2008. “It coincided with the beginning of writing. In retrospect, having a book to write was one of the things that kept me sane.”

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Starting with “The Sisterhood” in 1982, Dr. Palmer launched a parallel career as a best-selling author. Although he could have set aside medicine for the medical thrillers that made him famous around the world, he continued to treat patients for years in Falmouth Hospital’s emergency room and to work with troubled doctors as associate director of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Physician Health Services.

“It seemed to me that I was put on earth to take care of people,” he told the Globe. “That is what I should be doing, and I never got tired of it.”

Dr. Palmer, whose reputation for giving his time freely to aspiring writers was as legendary as his devotion to his three sons, died of complications from a heart attack and stroke Wednesday in New York City while he was on his way home from a safari in Africa. He was 71 and lived in Swampscott.

“Ultimately what mattered most to my father, above all the accolades and above all the accomplishments, were his family and his friends,” said his son Daniel of Hollis, N.H. “At the heart of my father was an endless amount of compassion and generosity. Nothing gave my dad greater joy than being in service to other people in their times of great need, or with just the simple things.”

For readers, Dr. Palmer offered books that opened a window into the medical profession. If Robert B. Parker used his hard-boiled detective, Spenser, to introduce the world to the streets of Boston, Dr. Palmer took those readers inside the city’s hospitals.

Translated into 35 languages, his first 19 books sold an estimated 5 million copies. His 20th book is scheduled to be published May 20. Dr. Palmer’s fourth book, 1991’s “Extreme Measures,” was made into a 1996 movie starring Hugh Grant, Gene Hackman, and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Self-deprecating in the face of success, Dr. Palmer made a point of knowing and thanking all who helped place his books in the hands of readers. Dr. Palmer’s editor said his visits to the publishing house’s New York offices always stretched long beyond the 10 or 15 minutes many authors stay before heading out for a swanky lunch.

“He wanted to talk and connect with everyone who worked on his book, from the cover designer to the production editors to the publicity department to the marketing department,” said Jennifer Enderlin, senior vice president and publisher of St. Martin’s Press and Dr. Palmer’s editor the past 10 years.

They always dined at the same Greek restaurant, and when “I’d say, ‘Michael, are you sick of Periyali?’ He’d say, ‘No, it’s our good luck place. We always come up with good thoughts and ideas there.’”

Dr. Palmer took joy in every aspect of being a writer, from those first discussions about his next book to sending gleeful e-mails to his editor during the writing months, filled with messages such as “Things are really heating up,” or “Boy, these bad guys are really awful,” or “You won’t believe what’s happening now in the book.”

“Some writers don’t like writing, they only like having written,” Enderlin said. “Michael really loved the writing process.”

He also liked sharing his joy with others, including those who approached him at book signings and writers’ gatherings in hopes of learning how to follow him onto bestseller lists.

“He was known for mentoring younger writers and was extraordinarily generous in that regard,” said Back Bay author Joseph Finder, who writes best-selling thrillers. “Pretty much any starting writer trying to make it in the business could approach him at an event or conference. He would take their e-mail and contact them and spend a lot of time mentoring.”

Dr. Palmer gave almost as much of his time to the International Thriller Writers association as he did to the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Physician Health Services.

Born in Springfield, Dr. Palmer grew up in Longmeadow, one of three children whose father was an optometrist.

He graduated in 1964 from Wesleyan University as a premed major with what he later called a “sort-of minor” in Russian. On his website, he said his writing had a rocky start: “My professor, as I recall, drew a line halfway through the paper and wrote, STOPPED READING HERE in the margin”

He graduated at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and trained at Boston City Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.

His marriages to Judith Grass and Noelle Shaughnessy ended in divorce.

For a while, it seemed as if his career, if not his life, might end, too. He was charged with writing false prescriptions.

“A group of doctors with problems similar to mine mentored me and helped me,” he told the Globe in 2008.

Writing eventually offered a way to shape his characters’ lives and, eventually, his own.

“I loved the feeling of being in control when my life was not,” he told the Globe in 1991. “When you’re writing and you find you don’t like a character, just type four letters and he’s dead.”

Along with offering assistance to other writers, Dr. Palmer drew his sons toward the field. Daniel is a published author and Matthew, of Belgrade, has a book due out in June.

“I know he wanted to walk into a bookstore and see us on the bookshelves together,” Daniel said. “He wanted us to go on a book tour together.”

In addition to his sons Matthew and Daniel, Dr. Palmer leaves his companion, Robin Broady of Swampscott; another son, Luke, of Brooklyn; two sisters, Donna Prince of Newton and Susan Palmer Terry of Concord, N.H.; and four grandchildren. Services will be private.

Offering comfort and guidance through more than just medicine, Dr. Palmer “would show me how to fix problems,” Matthew said. “And he didn’t do that just for me as a son. He played that role in the lives of so many people in the course of his life. With Dad, every time I talked to him, my life got a little bit easier.”

Luke said their father was “a healer in every true sense of the word. There are very few people about whom you can truly say that we needed more of them in the world, and we needed more people like my dad.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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