Sir Geoff Palmer was born in the parish of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. He travelled to the United Kingdom as part of the Windrush Generation and is now professor emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. Among many career highlights, he discovered the barley abrasion process and has received the American Society of Brewing Chemists award of distinction. In 1989, he became the first Black professor in Scotland and was knighted in 2014. He's written extensively on racism, race relations, the history of the slave trade and is named amongst the 100 great Black Britons.
In his keynote speech at the Burning Work digital forum, Sir Geoff Palmer spoke on three key aspects of his life: his family heritage, fundamental to achieving a sense of belonging; his education, equipping him with the tools to understand and navigate through the world; and his work as a scientist, creating new scientific concepts that have transformed his field, resulting in his current professorship at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.
A sense of belonging - from his birthplace of St.Elizabeth, Jamaica, Sir Geoff Palmer's family were and remain dispersed across the world. He spoke throughout his presentation of how, despite the distance, they have still been able to cultivate a deep sense of belonging wherever he's been situated. His talk weaved through experiences which have shaped his life, drawing our attention to who he identifies as the most important person in it, his mother. Along these routes, rooted in memories of being cared for by his strict aunties after his Mother left for England in 1951, in 1955 he eventually found his way to Liverpool by boat via New York. Sir Geoff Palmer reflects, "All the time, my mother kept in touch, asking me where I was, what I was doing... I had that sort of sense of belonging through my mother keeping in touch."
Navigation tools: Once in London, England, Sir Geoff Palmer was refused work due to his young age. His mother attempted to get him into local schools in Highbury, although he was rejected as they claimed he was educationally subnormal. Eventually, his cricket skills gained him entrance into secondary school, then Islington Grammar School. While working as a lab technician after graduating, he had to study law at Islington public library, to defend their accommodation from landlords who had issued a notice of eviction. Sir Geoff Palmer recalls, "I said, I've got a degree. He said, have you got a temperature? So that was what it was like in 1964 when I got an honors degree." After graduating to a job peeling potatoes, an advert appeared for a P.H.D position in Edinburgh, he applied and met Professor Anna Macleod who interviewed him, eventually taking him on.
Transforming the world: Sir Geoff Palmer researched barley, the main ingredient of whisky, beer, foods, biscuits, etc. He developed concepts used and taught all over the world. With Professor Anna Macleod, he published his first paper in Nature, the primary scientific magazine. Up until then, everybody thought when a grain grew, the germ produced all the enzymes. Sir Geoff Palmer came along and said, no, the germ doesn't do that. It's the bran. Sir Geoff reflects on the 'trouble' caused from changing a scientific concept as a Black person. He then left Edinburgh and started work at the Brewing Research Foundation in Surrey. After his Professor Anna Macleod retired from her position at Heriot-Watt University, he was interviewed to replace her and In 1977 got the job as a lecturer, not as a professor. He worked as a lecturer slowly progressing towards a full professorship in 1989, not only becaming a professor but was responsible for teaching key brewers from all over the world. One achievement in Nigeria was using a local African grain to make Guiness, completely transforming agriculture in Africa. As the grain doesn't need a lot of water, the use of this grain was hailed as an important response to climate change. The Jamaican boy from Olman Town, St. Elizabeth, was proud to be in Africa achieving that.
Abolish Racism : Sir Geoff Palmer emphasises the importance of Black Studies, to move against any confrontation with an informed understanding of how racism operates. Through a close reading of history, we can better understand the racist logic which claims some people are of lower intelligence, used to justify centuries of systematic enslavement and the racial disparities in the wake. He states how we must ensure that our children are ready to deal with these sorts of untruths, these falsehoods. He ends with "It must be the third statue down. I will not move beyond what. Don't take another statue down for me. I don't want it. I want us to take racism down next."