Geoff Palmer (scientist)

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Sir Geoff Palmer
Godfrey Henry Oliver Palmer

(1940-04-09) 9 April 1940 (age 84)
EducationKingston Senior School, and North Street Congregational School, Jamaica. Highbury County School, London.
Alma materUniversity of Leicester
University of Edinburgh
Heriot-Watt University
Known forFirst black professor in Scotland, Barley abrasion process
Scientific career
Doctoral advisorEdmund Hirst
Other academic advisorsAnna Macleod

Sir Godfrey Henry Oliver Palmer KT OBE CD (born 9 April 1940),[1] commonly known as Geoff Palmer, is a professor emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, and a human rights activist.[2][3]

He discovered the barley abrasion process while he was a researcher at Heriot-Watt University under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Anna M. Macleod. In 1998, Palmer was honoured with the American Society of Brewing Chemists Award of Distinction,[4] considered the "Nobel prize of brewing".[5]

In 1989, he became the first black professor in Scotland,[6] becoming a professor emeritus after he retired in 2005. He was knighted in the 2014 New Year Honours.[7][8]

Early life[edit]

Palmer was born in St Elizabeth, Jamaica.[9] His father left home when he was seven years old;[10] after his mother moved to work as a dressmaker in England in 1948, part of the Windrush generation, Palmer grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, in the care of his eight aunts.[11]

Palmer joined his mother in London in March 1955, shortly before his 15th birthday, living at a house on the Caledonian Road. He told the story as a student at Heriot-Watt University that he was a stowaway on a banana boat from Jamaica to London. Too young to work, he was assessed as educationally subnormal at his first school,[5] and he was sent to Shelborne Road Secondary Modern.[11] His cricketing skill gained him a place on the London Schools' cricket team, and a place at Highbury Grammar School.[10] After leaving school in 1958 with six O-levels and two A-levels, in botany and zoology, he found a job as a junior lab technician at Queen Elizabeth College, London University, working for Professor Garth Chapman. He gained further qualifications studying one day a week at a local polytechnic.

In 1961, Palmer went to the University of Leicester, earning a degree (2:2) in botany in 1964.[11] He sought post-graduate work, and applied to study for an MSc at the University of Nottingham, funded by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Academic career[edit]

After an interview with Professor Anna Macleod, in 1964, he secured a place to study for a PhD in grain science and technology jointly with Heriot-Watt College and the University of Edinburgh, beginning his doctorate in 1965. His PhD supervisor at Edinburgh was the chemist Sir Edmund Hirst.[12] After completing his PhD thesis entitled Ultra-structure of cereal grains in relation to germination in 1967,[13][14] he began his research work at the Brewing Research Foundation in Surrey in 1968,[11] where he worked on the science and technology of barley.[15] He moved back to Heriot-Watt University in 1977.[16] He received a Doctorate of Science in 1985,[11] and was offered a personal chair at Heriot-Watt in 1989 after Macleod had retired.[5]

Palmer specialises in grain science and has extensive expertise with barley, sorghum, other cereals and malt, having written a textbook on the subject entitled Cereal Science and Technology. He investigated the processes that turn barley into malt, and he invented the barley abrasion process while at the Brewing Research Foundation. At Heriot-Watt, he and his students worked on brewing using sorghum. He developed a new simple method to detect pre-germination in cereal grains showing difference in amylase actions of individual grains of a barley sample containing different degrees of pre-germination, with results that can be expressed in optical density. In the journal International Brewer and Distiller, it was reported that Palmer had "requested samples of pre-germinated grain as he is developing a new amylase test which will look at the distribution of the enzyme across individual grains in a sample. A small number of grains, with high amylase/pre-germination activity, can cause unexpected storage or processing problems and visual or average analyses do not always identify uneven distribution."[17]

He attracted and received funding to set up the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University, through initiating contact with the distilling industry. He has also contributed to the Encyclopedia of Seeds and the Encyclopedia of Grain Science, writing the Foreword for the latter.

On 29 April 2021, it was announced that Sir Geoff Palmer had been appointed as the Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, for an initial term of five years.[18] The role is central to promoting Heriot-Watt's prominence and profile in research in the university's campuses in Scotland, Malaysia and Dubai.[19]


Human rights and racial equality work[edit]

Alongside his academic work, Palmer is also a prominent human rights activist and is involved in a considerable amount of charity work in the community. He wrote a series of articles for the Times Educational Supplement from 1969 to 1971 on way to improve the education of children from ethnic minorities.[9] His book on race relations entitled Mr. White and the Ravens, was first published in 2001,[20] and he contributed an article to The Scotsman entitled 'Stephen Lawrence analysis: Society is more mixed but racism has not gone away - we still have a long way to go' (5 January 2012). Palmer has also authored a book on the history of slavery, The Enlightenment Abolished: Citizens of Britishness (2007), and has spoken out extensively against the slave trade.[21][22]

In 2007, the Bicentenary of the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807 by Parliament, which abolished the slave trade, Professor Geoff Palmer was named among the "100 Great Black Britons",[23] as well as on the 2020 updated list.

He serves as the Honorary President of Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equality Council (ELREC), an Edinburgh-based organisation which works to tackle discrimination and promote human rights and equality in the community, specifically with regard to the nine protected characteristics outlined in the Equality Act 2010.[24] Palmer recently spoke about the Ethnic Coding in NHS Scotland at ELREC's 40th Annual General Meeting.[25]

Melville Monument and slavery[edit]

During the George Floyd protests, Palmer was a leading proponent of calls to reinterpret the Melville Monument, a large column in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh dedicated to Scottish statesman Henry Dundas, due to his support for "gradual abolition", which delayed the abolition of slave trade by fifteen years. Noting that he did not support the removal of controversial statues "because [they are] part of black history", Palmer instead called on Scottish society to "take down... racism."[26] On 4 April 2021, Palmer appeared on an episode of the BBC's Antiques Roadshow, presenting his antique collection of silver sugar bowls and tongs.[27] On the programme, he described the significance of these items to slavery: "After the 200 year commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade I decided to look at sugar, because it was one of the main reasons for slavery. I thought I would find some evidence of this and acquired these silver items. While slaves were working and dying, people... were consuming the sugar, in those bowls, and with those tongs. To me, those silver bowls tell us the sort of things we do in order to make money, and to have a lifestyle that we think we deserve."[28]

Awards and media[edit]

In recognition of his work and achievements in the field of grain science, Palmer was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2003 Birthday Honours.[9]

In 1998, Palmer became the fourth individual, and first European, to be honoured with the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC) Award for distinction in scientific research and good citizenship: he received the award in Boston, Massachusetts in 2008.[9] Palmer has been awarded Honorary Doctorates by Abertay University in 2009,[29] The Open University in 2010,[11][30] the University of the West Indies in 2015,[31] and Heriot-Watt University in 2015.[32][33]

He was knighted in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to human rights, science, and charity.[34][35][36]

In August 2015 Palmer was the guest of interviewer Jim Al-Khalili on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific.[37]

In 2020 Palmer was awarded Commander of Order of Distinction in the Jamaican national honour.[38]

On 14 November 2022 He received the Edinburgh Award from the Edinburgh City Council.[39][40]

In December 2022, with Lord Carloway, Lord President of the Court of Session, Palmer unveiled a plaque commemorating the 1778 Knight v Wedderburn case, which ruled that slavery was incompatible with Scots law.[41]

In March 2024, King Charles III appointed Palmer a knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (KT), the highest order of chivalry in Scotland.[42][43][44]

Personal life[edit]

Palmer has lived in the town of Penicuik in Midlothian since 1977.[7] He is married to educational psychologist Margaret Palmer and has three children.[10]


  1. ^ "Godfrey Henry Oliver (Geoff) PALMER" Archived 10 November 2014 at the Wayback Machine, Debrett's People of Today.
  2. ^ The Z Files: Professor Geoff Palmer Retrieved 25 December 2011.
  3. ^ "Professor Geoff Palmer to Made Freeman Midlothian" Archived 16 June 2012 at the Wayback Machine, News & events, Heriot-Watt University, 14 September 2011. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
  4. ^ Award of Distinction Archived 23 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine, American Society of Brewing Chemists
  5. ^ a b c Keith Joseph suggested I 'go back and grow bananas', Times Educational Supplement, 15 August 2003
  6. ^ Auslan Cramb, "Claim that Scots are more tolerant of immigration is a 'myth', says country's first black professor", Daily Telegraph, 10 March 2015.
  7. ^ a b "First black university professor knighted", Herald Scotland, 31 December 2013.
  8. ^ "Godfrey Henry Palmer is Scotland's first black professor in Scotland", Retrieved 25 December 2011.[dead link]
  9. ^ a b c d Professor Palmer Archived 20 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine, 100 Great Black Britons. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
  10. ^ a b c Jackie Kemp, "Jamaican scientist opens doors for African-Caribbean children", The Guardian, 28 September 2010.
  11. ^ a b c d e f "Biography - Geoff Palmer". From Marjorie H. Morgan, Caribbean Britain: The Cultural and Biographical Directory, 2013.
  12. ^ "Geoff Palmer". The University of Edinburgh. 18 February 2019. Retrieved 15 February 2024.
  13. ^ Palmer, Geoff (1967). "Ultra-structure of cereal grains in relation to germination". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. ^ Palmer, Geoff (9 June 1967). Ultra-structure of cereal grains in relation to germination. OCLC 606124041 – via Open WorldCat.
  15. ^ "Geoff PALMER, Grain Scientist" Archived 12 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine, Penicuik Greats.
  16. ^ "Anti-racism chief given knighthood" Archived 23 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine, The Scotsman, 15 January 2014.
  17. ^ International Brewer and Distiller, 8:8 (August 2012), 5.
  18. ^ Jackson, Luke (29 April 2021). "Penicuik's Sir Geoff Palmer is the new Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University".
  19. ^ Phyllis, Stephen (29 April 2021). "Sir Geoff Palmer is appointed Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University". The Edinburgh Reporter.
  20. ^ Palmer, Geoff (9 June 2001). Mr White and the ravens. Gopher. OCLC 48932829 – via Open WorldCat.
  21. ^ "Transcript of 'Trading Truth' clip", BBC. Retrieved 25 December 2011. Archived 9 June 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ Jackie Kemp, "Tartan and home truths. A new centre for the study of the Scottish diaspora is already caught up in controversy", The Guardian, 25 November 2008. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
  23. ^ List of 100 Great Black Britons. Archived 15 March 2015 at the Wayback Machine 100 Great Black Britons. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
  24. ^ ELREC directors Archived 22 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 25 December 2011.
  25. ^ 40th AGM Archived 26 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine ELREC Newsletter, December 2011. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
  26. ^ Euro News (11 June 2020). "Sir Geoff Palmer: 'Don't take down statues – take down racism'".
  27. ^ Jolene Campbell (5 April 2021). "Sir Geoff Palmer shared 'hugely poignant' evidence of Slave Trade on Antiques Roadshow". Edinburgh Evening News Scotsman.
  28. ^ "Antiques Roadshow". BBC IPlayer - Antiques Roadshow (series 43, Culdean Castle). BBC. Retrieved 27 April 2021.
  29. ^ "2009 | Abertay announces honorary graduands", Abertay University, 6 July 2009. Archived 13 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine, 2009.
  30. ^ Conferment of Honorary Degrees and Presentation of Graduates Archived 6 January 2016 at the Wayback Machine, Open University, 2010.
  31. ^ "21 Honorary Degrees at The UWI Graduation Ceremonies", Campus News, UWI, 1 June 2015.
  32. ^ "Edinburgh Campus graduations", Heriot-Watt University, 2015
  33. ^ "Penicuik Man to Join Nelson Mandela as a Freeman of Midlothian" Archived 19 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Midlothian government site. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
  34. ^ "No. 60728". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2013. p. 2.
  35. ^ "Eminent alumni named in New Year’s Honours list", News - The University of Edinburgh, 28 January 2014.
  36. ^ "Scots awarded New Year's Honour", BBC News, 31 December 2013.
  37. ^ "BBC Radio 4 - The Life Scientific, Geoff Palmer". 4 August 2015. Retrieved 7 August 2015.
  38. ^ "Chancellor and Pro-Chancellor appointments". Retrieved 17 March 2024.
  39. ^ "Sir Geoff Palmer to receive Edinburgh Award". Heriot-Watt University. 8 September 2022. Retrieved 20 May 2023.
  40. ^ "Sir Geoff Palmer receives the Edinburgh Award 2022". Edinburgh City Council. 14 November 2022. Retrieved 20 May 2023.
  41. ^ "Scotland's slavery role cannot be glossed over, Lord Carloway says". BBC News. 6 December 2022. Retrieved 13 December 2022.
  42. ^ "No. 64354". The London Gazette. 26 March 2024. p. 6066.
  43. ^ "University Chancellor given Scotland's highest royal honour". Heriot-Watt University. 11 March 2024. Retrieved 29 March 2024.
  44. ^ "No. 64354". The London Gazette. 26 March 2024. p. 6066.

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