Lives of the fellows

John Hammond Palmer

b.14 June 1896 d.9 August 1958
MD CM McGill(1921) MRCP(1935) FRCP(C)(1938) FRCP(1942) FACP(1950)

John Hammond Palmer was born at Bedeque, Prince Edward Island, Canada, the son of the Rev. George C. Palmer, B.A., a Methodist minister, and his wife, Maude Hammond Johnson.

Palmer’s interest in medicine may have come from his mother whose father and grandfather had both been medical men. Her grandfather, Henry Alan Johnson, an army surgeon, had gone to Prince Edward Island in 1850, and her father, Richard Johnson, M.D., was a Harvard graduate. Her father’s medical studies had been interrupted by a period of evangelical work, occasioned by his almost miraculous escape from death when carried to sea on an ice floe while crossing to the Island for his Christmas holidays. He later completed his medical course at Harvard, practised in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and was one of the founders of its first hospital.

The Palmers also had an interesting family background. The founder of the North American branch was Sgt. John Palmer, a Puritan, who had gone in 1639 to New England where he settled in the Rowley neighbourhood near Salem, Massachusetts. Here his descendants remained until 1763 when one of his great-grandsons, Daniel Palmer, moved to Maugerville on the St. John River in what became the province of New Brunswick, Canada. Two generations later Dr Palmer’s grandfather, another John Palmer, was appointed High Sheriff of Queen’s County, New Brunswick, and the family moved to Gagetown, the county seat.

Two of the Sheriff’s sons attended the newly founded Mount Allison College in Sackville. One of these sons was Dr Palmer’s father, who later became a Methodist minister attached to the Atlantic circuit of the church. The other, James M. Palmer, M.A., LL.D., remained at Sackville as principal of the Mount Allison Academy and professor of Greek at the College.

While the Canadian branch of the family had a local reputation for scholarship (one member was a poet and another a writer of tales about the early settlers), a descendant of one of those who had returned to the United States had achieved a nationwide reputation in that country. He was William Lloyd Garrison, the Abolitionist. Garrison was a grandson of Mary Palmer, a daughter of the Daniel Palmer who had gone to Canada in 1763. Born at Newburyport, Mass., in 1805, he was the founder and the publisher of The Liberator, a Boston paper in which he carried on a vigorous antislavery campaign from 1831 until the end of the American Civil War. The paper had a wide circulation and he was frequently in trouble for the expression of his views; he was imprisoned on more than one occasion and once narrowly escaped lynching by an infuriated mob. Garrison was the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and later its president, and in 1865, when slavery was abolished, his admirers presented him with a purse of thirty thousand dollars as a memorial for his services.

Both of Dr Palmer’s parents died before he was ten years old and he was brought up by his aunts in the old family home of Gagetown. He was educated at the Gagetown Grammar School, and to qualify for entrance as a medical student at McGill University he took a year in arts at Mount Allison which had now become a university. He entered the McGill Medical Faculty in 1913, but on the outbreak of the First World War he enlisted in the McGill Hospital Unit and arrived in France in 1915 as a student orderly in the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill). Later he transferred to No. 3 Canadian Field Ambulance and spent the last six months of the War as a surgeon probationer (R.N.V.R.) with the Grand Fleet.

He completed his medical education after his return to Canada and, following a year’s internship in medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, spent the next twelve years in British Columbia on the staff of the Rossland-Trail clinic of the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada. During this period he went to London and Vienna for post-graduate training in 1929 and 1930. He resigned in 1934 and for the next two years was in London, working as a voluntary assistant at Dr John (later Sir John) Parkinson’s cardiac clinic at the London Hospital and writing a number of papers including a monograph on the development of cardiac enlargement in heart disease, based on radiological studies (M.R.C. Special Report Series, No. 222, 1937).

Palmer returned to Montreal in 1937. He was given appointments at the Royal Victoria Hospital and the faculty of medicine, McGill University, and commenced practice as a cardiologist. However, on the outbreak of the Second World War he enlisted at once and went to England as senior major in medicine with No. 14 Canadian General Hospital, and soon after his arrival was promoted officer-in-charge of medicine with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. The Hospital accompanied the Canadian Forces to Italy in 1943, and a year later he was appointed consultant in medicine for the Canadian Forces in Italy with the rank of colonel. In 1954 he was transferred to Canadian Headquarters in London with the rank of brigadier as senior consultant in medicine.

Palmer resumed his practice following his demobilisation, but retained his contact with the Army by acting as consultant in cardiology for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. He was also consultant to the Children’s Memorial, the Herbert Reddy Memorial and the Verdun Protestant Hospitals. At the time of his death in 1958 he was associate professor of medicine at McGill University and physician to the Royal Victoria Hospital. He had taken an active part in medical affairs, had become a widely known cardiologist, and was one of the organisers and a senior officer of the National Heart Foundation of Canada.

In civil life he was a Mason, a Rotarian and a curler, but perhaps his chief interest was in music and art. He was an excellent teacher, dogmatic but accurate, and like his distant cousin, Garrison, the Abolitionist, he held tenaciously to opinions which his colleagues frequently had to admit later to be correct. In 1927 he married Olive, daughter of James Alfred Woodburn, of Vancouver, B.C. They had three daughters.

Richard R Trail

[Lancet, 1958, 2, 1072.]

(Volume V, page 316)

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