PenicuikGREATS

from  Penicuik Community Development Trust’s PenicuikGREATS exhibitions held in Penicuik Town Hall 2005-2009

 

Geoff PALMER

Grain Scientist

   

 Penicuik’s Professor Geoff Palmer OBE was born Godfrey Henry Oliver Palmer in St Elizabeth, Jamaica in 1940. 

His mother had left Jamaica for London when he was 8 years old and he lived with maternal aunts in Allman Town, an underdeveloped section of Kingston, till he was fourteen.  On Sundays, the aunts decreed that church and Sunday School were compulsory.  But every other day he played cricket and football on the tough Race Course playground beside Allman Town.  At North Street School and Kingston Senior School his cricketing ability was encouraged and he was picked to play for secondary schools against private schools.

Geoff travelled on his own from Jamaica by plane and ship to meet up with his mother again in London in 1955.  She planned for him to help her to survive in London and had arranged work for him in a grocer's shop.  But he was a month short of 15, the school leaving age in London at that time.  He was assessed as educationally subnormal and placed in Shelborne Road secondary modern school in North London.  By the end of the year he was selected to play cricket for the London School Boys Cricket Team. He was then the only boy ever selected from a secondary modern to play for London, and played against Eton, Harrow, Winchester and the Middlesex Colts among others.  His cricket was talent-spotted and gave Geoff the immediate chance to transfer to the local grammar school at Highbury County; cricket and football being essential parts of the transfer deal.  Although placed in the slow stream at the grammar school in 1955 he got six "O"- levels and two "A"-levels by the time he left in 1958.  These were gained amid full seasons of cricket and football. 

Geoff shared a room with his brother and two cousins beside the wall of Pentonville prison. The gas light outside the window was a big help for studying late at night !  Geoff supported the household finances by doing paper rounds, before securing his first job as a junior technician for Professor Garth Chapman at Queen Elizabeth College, London.  It was 1958 and the pay was £5 a week.   He had daily ordeals to face in evading fascist blackshirts and in working near Notting Hill after the August 1958 race riots. Life was lived close to the immigrant community.  Geoff often wrote letters for those who had difficulties in reading and writing, and he began to take an interest in race relations.  And he was using the local library to find legal arguments to help combat the family’s eviction by a violent and greedy landlord.  Professor Chapman encouraged Geoff to study so that he could go to University.  Between 1958 and 1961 he attended after-work evening classes, raising his exam grades and the number of his "A"-levels from two to four.  But despite having a full grant award from the London County Council, every university he applied to turned him down.  At the time, there were no general provisions for new immigrants to enter university and Geoff was regarded neither as an overseas student nor as a local British student.

Dismayed by Geoff’s situation, Professor Chapman called a friend at

Leicester University and secured a place for him there in 1961.  Geoff played for the first cricket team and gained an Honours degree in Botany at Leicester in 1964.

Returning to London in 1964 after his degree, Geoff was provided with two job vacancies by the Labour Exchange – one as a gardener in Finsbury Park, the other as a potato peeler at a restaurant in Holloway road (the Job Officer did not believe he had a real degree).  Geoff chose potato peeling and after various promotions in the kitchen, he applied for a number of research jobs.  Turned down for an MSc in England by a prominent panel at the Ministry of Agriculture on the grounds that he should go back to where he came from, he looked at a joint PhD in grain science and technology at Heriot-Watt College and Edinburgh University.  He was interviewed by Professor Anna MacLeod.  Geoff spent much of his time during the interview looking out of window.  This earned him Anna’s favour.  "I hate keen people" she said.  Geoff later found out that Anna had been in touch with Leicester University and heard of Professor Chapman and Geoff’s early trouble in getting a University place.  This helped to make up her mind that Geoff was the man for her studentship.  Geoff began his PhD at Heriot Watt in 1965 and became President of the Caribbean Students Associaton there.

Geoff Palmer and Anna MacLeod in the mid eighties

 

His work was to study the physiological mechanisms that control the transformation of barley into malt, which is used at an industrial scale to make bread, beer and whisky.  Geoff Palmer gained his PhD in less than 3 years and completed a post-doctoral Fellowship before joining the Brewing Research Foundation in Surrey. There he worked on the science and technology of barley from 1968 to 1977. During this period he developed ideas like that were patented by the industry.  One of these -The Abrasion Process- radically speeded up malting. It saved and generated millions of pounds for the industry.   In addition, Geoff Palmer’s work improved our scientific knowledge of cereal grains such as barley.  His diagrams and electron micrographs are known and used world-wide.

Geoff Palmer had by then gained an international reputation as one of Britain's foremost cereal grain science experts. While engaged in his scientific work he was deeply involved in 1969 in the need to improve understanding of the educational difficulties West Indian children were facing in schools. He wrote four major articles for the Times Educational Supplement from 1969 to 1971 outlining what was required to improve the education performance of ethnic children. He also travelled the country giving free lectures to schools and teachers in his own time.

In 1977 Palmer gave up his position as Senior Scientist and returned to Heriot Watt University as a lecturer, gaining a large grant from the Coors Brewery in Colorado for research.  He developed his teaching and took in his first Nigerian PhD student to work on Africa's native grain sorghum. Some thought this could damage British exports to Africa!  Geoff Palmer weathered this storm and sorghum has since been studied by many African and Asian researchers. A major British company in Africa is one beneficiary of the work.  This industry related approach has introduced the valuable concept of industrial use of local raw materials, and has driven the development of food use of crops by industry for its local needs.

In 1985 Geoff Palmer gained his Doctor of Science (DSc), a rare research degree among British scientists, and he was elected to a personal chair as Professor in 1990.  He has served as visiting Professor at Kyoto University in Japan and has visited Africa many times and travelled the world to help with technical education. Producing a vast number of publications on cereal grains and at least 150 scientific papers, including the major compilation of Cereal Science and Technology, his output first appeared in 1966.  The number and frequency of his articles in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing shows he was a mainstay of the Institute during the 1970’s and remained an important contributor throughout his career. He has also steered many PhD and MSc students from different parts of the world. In 1996 he went with a British delegation to China to promote British barley and managed to persuade the Home Grown Cereals Authority to sponsor Chinese technicians to his university.  Professor Palmer acts as consultant to brewing, distilling and grains companies in many parts of the world and helped to set up the Chivas Regal Academy to promote Scottish whisky products abroad.

Active meanwhile in race relations and community work, Geoff Palmer has served on the Executive of Edinburgh and Lothian Racial Equality Councils for over twenty years and is currently President of the organisation. He has chaired a working party of the Church of Scotland’s Education Committee and is a member of its Higher Education Committee. He is a board member of Hanover Housing, a member of the Visiting Committee of Polmont Young Offenders Institution, chairman of the Multicultural Family Base organisation and supports many other bodies, giving lectures to the community and schools in different parts of the country on a variety of topics.

Geoff Palmer previews ‘Mr White and the Ravens’ at Penicuik Community Arts

Geoff Palmer has also written tellingly about the importance of foods of ethnic origin to the wellbeing of the world and on race relations.  Mr White and the Ravens -his story book on race relations- received widely favourable comments from world leaders, religious leaders, adults and children.  He strongly believes that if black people have the opportunities they need they are likely to succeed.  He takes the view that if the long and important historical links between the Caribbean and Britain are better known then race relations will improve. His ardent wish is for the anomalies of race to be replaced by the harmony of the human race.

In 1998 he was awarded the American Society of Brewing Chemists Award for distinction in research and good citizenship in science, in Boston. Only three other scientists had received this at the time, none from Europe. In 2002 he received the Good Citizen of Edinburgh award for exceptional contribution to community work and good race relations.  In 2003 he was awarded the OBE for his contribution to grain science and in 2004 was the Black Enterprise UK Champion.

He has completed a small book on the consequences of slavery, "The Enlightenment - Citizens of Britishness", and helped to edit a large three volume Encyclopedia of Grain Science.  He was invited to write the foreword.

   

On his retirement from the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt in 2005, the ICBD Newsletter described Geoff Palmer’s 41 years contribution to the University and to the Grain, Brewing, and Distilling industries as immeasurable. It recognised his watchwords: "enlightenment, innovation, and care, at any cost", and his charisma, enthusiasm, sense of fun and good humour.

Commemorative trophy from Heriot-Watt Former Brewing Students

A Fellow of many learned societies, Professor Palmer is married with three children and a long-term Penicuik resident.  He enjoys living in the Lothians, “not only because they are some of the best barley growing areas in the world, but also because they are nice areas in which to live”.   His hobbies are reading, listening to pop music and travelling locally.   He is grateful to all the helpful people he has known: his mother, his aunts, his family, his friends, and the Good Samaritans he has met over the years.

Biographical details can be found in the ICBD Research Newsletter Autumn 2005 and in Dawn Kandekore’s nomination at http://www.100greatblackbritons.com/bios/professor_palmer.htm

 

Above Penicuik Greats display prepared in 2005

 

Geoff Palmer talks at Penicuik Town Hall on the ties that bind Scotland and Jamaica in June 2009

 

GUARDIAN ARTICLE ON GEOFF PALMER 2010

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