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The Z Files: Professor Geoff Palmer

Updated Wednesday 29th September 2010

From grain to whisky, poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah interviews Professor Geoff Palmer about his journey to becoming a respected scientist

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Benjamin Zephaniah

I’ve come to Edinburgh to meet Professor Geoff Palmer, one of the world’s most respected scientists working in grain and cereals.  He’s broken almost every stereotype going.  He was born in the same part of Jamaica as my mother and has encountered poverty, racism and some of the educational difficulties I have.  I want to find out how he has coped with and overcome these challenges, and how he became a legend in the brewing industry.  So this place is just full of liquids, and you’re responsible for a lot of this, tell us what do we have here?

Prof Geoff Palmer

Well what we have here is a gallery of whiskies.  If I said that when I was five years old in Jamaica I thought what I want to be is a great scientist and end up in this room will be a lie.  A lot of it is accident.  This is to me surprising and wonderful.

Benjamin Zephaniah

How old were you when you came here?

Prof Geoff Palmer

14.

Benjamin Zephaniah

14.

Prof Geoff Palmer

And nearly 15, I was one month, and that one month has made the difference.  Had I have been 15 when I arrived I wouldn’t be here, because basically my mother quite cunningly had got me a job in a grocery shop the day after I arrived.  When she was about to take me to work at seven o’clock in the morning I was stopped by a man at the door saying, you know, to my mother, this boy is only 14 years and eleven months, not 15, so he had to go to school.  

Benjamin Zephaniah

So you went to school.

Prof Geoff Palmer

And I was struggling, because I had no formal education before that.  I found an interest in biology.  I was going to the polytechnic once a week, but I was doing all the sort of homework with a full time job, and I was still living in one room with my mother, and by 1961 I had four A-levels and eight O-levels.

Benjamin Zephaniah

You must have had some challenges just in terms of your race alone.  Have you ever come across, you know, real straightforward hardnosed racism?

Prof Geoff Palmer

Well, you know, for example I wanted really to do a Masters, and he said I think you’d be better off going back to where you come from and planting bananas.

Benjamin Zephaniah

Wow!

Prof Geoff Palmer

And I looked at him, I said yes, as far as I know there are no bananas in Highbury.  So of course I didn’t get it; however I saw the advert for a PhD opportunity in Edinburgh, and I applied and I came up to this city.  My link with this industry when I look around started in 1968.  I’d finished my PhD on barley and I went to the Brewing Research Foundation, this elite institution, there wasn’t even a black person in retail much less in the research institute, and this was my first big break.

Benjamin Zephaniah

Right, I want to inspire lots of young people, especially black people, to be like you, what do I tell them?

Prof Geoff Palmer

I realised early that if I’m going to defend myself in any society I need to be able to reason.  What you need to tell the kids, that’s what I told my kids, I want to educate you because I want you to be able to defend yourself.

Benjamin Zephaniah

What’s going to happen is people are going to be watching this programme all over the world and there’s one question they want to know is do you drink this stuff?

Prof Geoff Palmer

Yes I do.

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