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Profiles In Focus - Professor Sir Geoff Palmer

Chancellor of Heriot Watt University, Renowned Scientist and Scotland’s first Black professor

Sir Geoff was born in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica but grew up in Kingston before migrating to London to join his mother at the age of 14 to help her by working in a local grocery shop in Islington in 1955. However, he was not allowed to work because he was below the school-leaving age of 15 years. Overcoming early educational challenges of being assessed as “educationally subnormal” at school in London, and despite other difficulties, he completed school at Highbury County, London in 1958. He excelled at cricket as a member of the prestigious London School Boys’ Cricket team, having learnt his cricketing skills at Race Course, Kingston, Jamaica. After leaving school in 1958, Sir Godfrey secured a job at Queen Elizabeth College as a junior technician.

His employer, Professor Garth Chapman, who was instrumental in changing Sir Geoff’s name, from Godfrey to Geoff, helped him to get a place at Leicester University because, although fully qualitied, he was rejected by the Universities he had applied to enter in 1961. He went on to earn an honours degree in botany in 1964 from Leicester University. After completing his degree at Leicester University Sir Geoff returned to Haringey, London to secure a job.

However, the only suitable job offered was to peel potatoes in Beales restaurant at Nags Head in North London. He worked there for about six months. He applied for a joint PhD in grain science and technology at Heriot-Watt College and Edinburgh University. He started his PhD in 1965 and completed it in 1967 and then worked as a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the Heriot Watt University from 1967 to 1968. His supervisors were Professor Anna MacLeod at the Heriot Watt University and Sir Edmund Hurst at Edinburgh University.

In 1968 he began his research work at the Brewing Research Foundation in Surrey, England where he worked on the science and technology of barley from 1968 to 1977. There he discovered the Barley Abrasion Process (1969) and was the first to use the Scanning Electron Microscope to study malt production in detail. The Abrasion process was patented and used by the British Brewing Industry. He was employed by the Heriot Watt University as a lecturer in 1977. In 1989 he designed, edited and contributed to his textbook, entitled Cereal Science and Technology. In 1991 Sir Geoff gained his Professorship and served in Japan as Visiting Professor at Kyoto University.

In addition to his active involvement in the science and technology of cereal grain research, Sir Geoff found it possible to help to secure better education opportunities for Black and minority ethnic children in the early 1970s by writing a series of articles for the Times Educational Supplement, explaining the educational needs of these children. Professor Sir Geoff Palmer’s important Life Scientific interview by the BBC, Radio 4, in August 2015 gives some examples of the difficulties he had to over-come to succeed.

During his working life Sir Geoff has travelled and lectured worldwide and was instrumental in the development of the Tropical cereal sorghum, as brewing material and food in Africa, making various trips to Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. He helped to secure the first export of British barley to China and has lectured on barley, malt and cereal grains in many countries such as Canada, the United States, Brazil, Jamaica, St Lucia, India and most European countries.

On his retirement in 2005 he was made Emeritus Professor of the Heriot-Watt University. He has accepted Honorary Doctorates from a number of Universities including two from Universities in Jamaica. He is a Fellow of various institutions such as the Royal Society of Medicine. Sir Geoff is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Brewing in London, one of the first Fellows to be elected. He donated his certificate to the Red Stripe Brewery in Kingston, Jamaica. He is a Freeman of Midlothian County, Scotland and he was given the Good Citizen Award of Edinburgh, Scotland for his work on race relations. He is also a Black Enterprise Champion award winner.

Sir Geoff is still actively involved in science and technology and has recently (2015/2016) completed chapters for books on Distilled Beverage and Barley and Malt. He is the author of a book on race relations: Mr White and the Ravens and a book on Caribbean (Jamaican/Scottish) history: The Enlightenment Abolished. He is a past Visitor (and Chairman) of the Incorporation of Maltmen of Glasgow, Scotland an old charitable organisation.

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer is actively engaged in charitable work in the community and continues to work to help deprived children on a charitable basis. He is Honorary President of Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equality Council and Birmingham’s Association of Jamaicans. He was a prison visitor for many years and is on the Board of Sacro, an organisation that works to reduce offending. As a Board member of the Citizen Advice Bureau and Hanover Housing for older people he works to help a wide range of people in the community. However, he also continues to support his past Church and School at North Street/Princess Street in Kingston.

In 1998, Sir Geoff was the fourth person (and at the time the only person in Europe) to be awarded The Distinguished American Award for his research on cereals, regarded in the industry as its ‘Noble Prize’ Award. In 2003 he obtained the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for scientific and charitable work. He was awarded a Knighthood in the New Year’s Honours list of the United Kingdom in 2014 for his work in science, human rights and charity. Sir Geoff is also a patron of Reach Society.

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