James Croxall Palmer was born in Baltimore, Maryland on June 29, 1811, one of four sons of merchant Edward Palmer and his wife Catherine Croxall Palmer. He entered Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and graduated with the class of 1829. He studied law for a time but eventually earned a medical degree from the University of Maryland in 1834. He took up a commission as an assistant surgeon in the United States Navy and by the end of 1835 had completed a voyage around the world in the frigate USS Brandywine and the sloop USS Vincennes.
In July 1838, Palmer joined the store ship Relief, part of the newly formed United States Exploring Expedition under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. He transferred at Tierra Del Feugo to the 18 gun sloop USS Peacock and continued for two years in that vessel. He was still aboard the Peacock when it was wrecked off the mouth of the Columbia River on July 19, 1841 while exploring the north-western coast of North America. Following the loss of his ship, Palmer commanded a large landing party of sailors ashore in an exploration of the Oregon Coast, near what is now Astoria. The Wilkes Expedition in 1842 ended after four years of investigation with Palmer as assistant surgeon back aboard the Vincennes. The explorations had found new whaling and sealing grounds, charted the North American coast from Puget Sound to San Francisco Bay, and visited Antarctica twice to explore more than 1500 miles of the continent's coastline. In 1843 Palmer published an epic poem he had begun during the Antarctic venture, called Thulia: A Tale of the Antarctic, dedicated to the commander of the USS Flying Fish, the ship that had ventured the furthest south into the unknown seas.
Returning home, he was promoted to surgeon in October 1842, and assigned to the Washington Naval Yard. On February 28, 1844, he was on hand and in charge of the wounded from the famous explosion aboard the USS Princeton, on the Potomac River near Fort Washington, Maryland, which had among its casualties the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Navy. Palmer served aboard the USS St. Mary during the Mexican War and in August 1857 was surgeon aboard the steam frigate Niagara during its unsuccessful first attempts with the British warship H.M.S. Agamemnon to join the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. From there he was in the Mediterranean aboard the USS Macedonian, and afterwards assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. When the Academy was forced to move to Rhode Island at the outbreak of the Civil War, he moved with it and assumed the position of senior medical officer at the institution.
By 1863, Palmer was fleet surgeon in Admiral Farragut's squadron aboard the flagship, USS Hartford, and on August 5, 1864 distinguished himself at the Battle of Mobile Bay by running messages and providing medical assistance. Following the battle, he organized the treatment of the wounded ashore at Pensacola. Contracting malaria in Florida, he never fully recovered his health and was for a time detached from service. He returned to duty in 1866 to head the naval hospital in Brooklyn, New York. While there, he revised his old epic poem and republished it in 1868 as the Antarctic Mariner's Song. In March 1871, he became one of the medical directors of the Navy and on June 10, 1872, was named as Surgeon General of the United States Navy.
He retired from the Navy on June 29, 1873, his sixty-second birthday, after thirty-nine years of service. James Croxall Palmer died in Washington, D.C. on April 24, 1883.
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