Dr. Richard E. Palmer, 57, an Alexandria pathologist who was a former president of the American Medical Association and a leader in several other medical organizations, died of a heart ailment June 23 at his home in Alexandria.

Dr. Palmer was president of the AMA, the nation's largest medical organization with 275,000 members, in 1976-77. In that capacity he was influential in guiding the AMA into a more activist position on a number of public issues than the association had previously taken.

"For a good number of years, the AMA has been a paper tiger," Dr. Palmer said upon taking office in June of 1976. "We realize now that we should have been more active on the legislative and regulatory fronts. The doctors of this country are fed up to their eyeballs with restrictive government laws and regulations."

Under Dr. Palmer's leadership the AMA filed a variety of lawsuits aimed at easing government regulations and lobbied against legislation that would have forced young doctors to pay the government back in cash or service for federal funds given to medical schools. It also spoke out against violence on television programs and urged major U.S. corporations to pull advertisements from shows that were excessively violent.

Since 1949 Dr. Palmer had been a pathologist at Alexandria Hospital and Alexandria's Circle Terrace Hospital. He was also pathologist to the office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia.

Dr. Palmer was born in Washington and graduated from the old Central High School, George Washington University and GWU Medical School. He served in the Army Medical Corps at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, then returned to Washington to complete his residency training in pathology at George Washington University Hospital.

He was a clinical professor of pathology at GWU Medical School and a member of the University's board of trustees.

In 1971 to 1972, Dr. Palmer was chairman of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals, the national organization that rules on a hospital's accreditation status. He was also a former president of the American Board of Pathology, the certifying agency for the nation's pathologists. In 1964 he was president of the Medical Society of Virginia.

A Republican Party activist, Dr. Palmer was chairman of Alexandria's Citizens for Goldwater Committee in 1964. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1972 where he served on the platform committee.

He was a member of the Salvation Army Advisory Board in Alexandria and a founding director of the Alexandria Professional Baseball Club, the sponsoring organization of the Carolina League baseball team that is now the Prince William Pirates.

Survivors include his wife, Mary Lou, of Alexandria; two sons, Dr. Richard N. Palmer of Arlington and Maury Palmer of Alexandria; two daughters, Deborah Palmer of Alexandria and Mary Palmer Stepka of Falls Church, and five grandchildren.