Friday, 14 August 2015

Radio Review: 14 August

A remarkable man to whom our columnist owes much

Written by Louis Barfe
Louis-Barfe-colour-176Until I listened to last week’s edition of The Life Scientific (Radio 4, on BBC iPlayer), the only Geoff Palmer I knew about was the actor who played Reginald Perrin’s brother-in-law. However, I am now aware of Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, and a man to whom it seems I owe a great deal. The reason for my debt is that his academic specialism was brewing.

Palmer’s career is all the more remarkable, considering that his first English school after arriving from Jamaica in the mid-1950s classed him as ‘educationally subnormal’ in the phrase of the time. This was done on the basis of a test that included the question ‘How does Big Ben indicate the time?’ ‘I’d been in the country two days, so I wasn’t sort of certain what Big Ben was,’ Palmer explained with a chuckle.

Indeed, he chuckled a lot as he told the never acidic Professor Jim Al-Khalili about his life, even though being a black man in a very white and very competitive academic world didn’t always give him much to laugh about. One of his superiors insisted on taking half the credit for one of Palmer’s major discoveries.

When he applied for a postgraduate degree at Nottingham University, the politician Keith Joseph was on the interview panel and told him ‘to go back where you’ve come from and grow bananas’. Palmer got the better of this awful man by replying, ‘Where? Haringey?’

Incidentally, he’s not a Geoffrey. On applying for his first job as a laboratory technician at London University, Palmer was asked his name by Professor Garth Chapman. ‘Godfrey Henry Oliver Palmer,’ came the reply. ‘You can have the job if I call you Geoff ,’ Chapman responded, and became Palmer’s fi rst mentor. ‘So, I have Professor Chapman to thank too.’

Louis on Twitter: @LFBarfe or email: wireless@cheeseford.net


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