After being orphaned at an early age, Palmer was brought up by an aunt and educated at The Perse, where he showed a great skill for languages. He left the school to work in London as a clerk in the city, during which time he learned French and Italian.
He returned to Cambridge in 1859 during a bout of ill health. When recovered, he met Sayyid Abdallah, teacher of Hindustani at Cambridge, and was influenced to begin academic study. Palmer matriculated at St John’s College in 1863, and was elected a fellow to the College in 1867.
Palmer published a number of literary and grammatical works, but is perhaps best known for his exploration work. He joined the survey of Mount Sinai in 1869 and followed this with an exploration of the desert of El-Tih with Charles Drake in 1870, which they completed on foot and without escort.
Throughout the 1870s, Palmer returned to teaching in Cambridge and was called to the English bar in 1874. He returned to the East on a government expedition in early 1882, and was appointed interpreter-in-chief to the force in Egypt after highly successful negotiations with the Bedouin.
Unfortunately, during another expedition in the El-Tih desert in August 1882, Palmer and his companions were led into an ambush and murdered. Their remains now lie in St Paul’s Cathedral.