Oration for Professor Sir Godfrey Palmer

By Dr Paul Jenkins

Today we take it for granted that the bad effects of drinking beer are caused by the quantity rather than the quality of the beer.  The improvement in the process of fermentation has been achieved by extensive research in the brewing industry and one of the world leaders in this area is Leicester graduate Godfrey Palmer.

Godfrey was born in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, where he was brought up by family members in Allman Town, Kingston. In 1955 at the age of 14 he migrated, on his own, to Islington London to join his mother, with the intention of helping her by working in a local grocery shop. Fortunately for him, he was not allowed to work because he was below the school-leaving age, which was then 15. Overcoming early educational challenges, he stayed on at school until 1958. Godfrey excelled as a member of the prestigious London School Boys’ Cricket team having learnt his cricketing skills at the Race Course, in Kingston, Jamaica.  After leaving school, Godfrey secured a job at Queen Elizabeth College, London as a junior technician, whilst attending night classes to improve his academic qualifications.

Godfrey’s employer, Professor Garth Chapman, helped him to get a place at Leicester University where he went on to graduate in Botany in 1964. After completing his degree, Godfrey returned to Haringey, London to look for employment.  However, there were no suitable jobs on offer, and Godfrey found himself peeling potatoes at a restaurant in North London. After six months he applied for a joint PhD in grain science and technology at Heriot-Watt College and Edinburgh University.   He was accepted and completed the degree in only two years with a thesis entitled Ultrastructure of cereal grains in relation to germination.   Further post-doctoral research followed at Heriot Watt under the supervision of Professor Anna MacLeod and Sir Edmund Hurst.

In 1968 Godfrey began working at the Brewing Research Foundation in Surrey, specializing in the science and technology of barley.   Barley is converted into malt by the process of malting in which the grains are first germinated, and the germination is then halted by drying with hot air.  Malting releases the enzymes which convert the starch in the grain into sugars and other enzymes, which can be used by yeast in the fermentation process.   Godfrey Palmer discovered that when barley grains are subjected to mechanical abrasion the malting process is far more efficient.  This discovery is called the Barley Abrasion Process which was patented in 1969 and immediately used by the British Brewing Industry. The key innovation in this discovery was the use of an electron microscope to observe the effect of abrasion on the barley grain.

In 1977 Godfrey returned to Heriot Watt University as a lecturer. In 1989 he published the major text book in the field called Cereal Science and Technology. In 1990 Godfrey was promoted to Professor and also served in Japan as Visiting Professor at Kyoto University.

During his working life Godfrey has travelled and lectured worldwide and was instrumental in the development of the cereal, sorghum, as food and brewing material in Africa.  He made several trips to Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa to promote this idea. He also helped to secure the first export of British barley to China.

On his retirement in 2005 he was made Emeritus Professor of the Heriot-Watt University and he has accepted Honorary Doctorates from a number of Universities including two from Universities in Jamaica. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and of the Institute of Brewing.  He is still actively involved in science and technology and has recently completed chapters for books on Distilled Beverages, Barley and Malt. When he visits supermarkets he is proud that many of the beverages are produced by his former students.

Throughout his successful academic career, Godfrey has never forgotten the challenges- and indeed prejudice- he encountered as a young black boy in 1950s England. Godfrey made it his business to help to secure better opportunities for Black and Minority Ethnic children.  In the 1970s he wrote a series of articles for the Times Educational Supplement explaining their educational needs.  He is a Black Enterprise award winner and also the author of two books on race relations.  Godfrey is a Freeman of Midlothian County, and was given the Good Citizen award of Edinburgh for his work on race relations.

Sir Godfrey continues to be actively engaged in charitable work in the community, focusing on helping deprived children. He is Honorary President of Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equality Council and Birmingham’s Association of Jamaicans. He also continues to support his past Church and School in Kingston, Jamaica.

In 1998, Sir Godfrey was the fourth person (and at the time the only European) to receive The American Society of Brewing Chemists Award for his research on cereals, an achievement which is regarded in the brewing industry as its ‘Nobel Prize’. In 2003 he was awarded the OBE for scientific and charitable work and received a Knighthood in 2014 for his work in science, human rights and charity.

Mr Chancellor on the authority of the Senate and Council, I present Godfrey Henry Oliver Palmer so that you may confer on him the degree of Doctor of Science.

Delivered by Dr Paul Jenkins on 15 July 2016

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