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What is Pharmacognosy?

Posted by John Murray on
Dr Simon Jackson, Chief Scientific Officer at Modern Botany

Modern Botany’s Founder, Simon Jackson (aka Dr Simon), is a Doctor of Pharmacognosy.  In simple terms, Pharmacognosy is the study of medicines derived from plants.

Pharma/Drugs + Cognosy/ Knowledge = Knowledge of drugs or medicines

As one of very few Pharmacognists left in the world, Dr Simon has dedicated his 30+ year career to this arm of medicine.   

Through extensive studies and countless expeditions he developed a specific interest and passion for natural cosmetics and nutraceutical product research.  Long before it became trendy to do so, he began promoting a natural movement in the cosmeceutical industry. From the early ‘90s he started to develop formulations based on the principles of Pharmacognosy - a unique approach which was founded on science and evidence-based research.

“I knew my experience and knowledge could add huge value in not only selecting which extracts were used, but checking the quality of ingredients and ensuring that they were pharmacy grade. Even today, it’s common for plant extracts to be adulterated with cheaper alternatives. Feverfew, for example, is often used in place of Chamomile and while the plant and flower look the same to the naked eye, they have a whole different pharmacology.”

Dr Simon Jackson – Modern Botany, Co-founder

In more detail…

Pharmacognosy has been around for a long time and we can record how humans have used plants back to the Stone Age, but Western medicine originates from Greek philosophers. Dioscorides (40-90AD) was one of the first to document the ‘De Materia Medica’ or medical material, and it’s from here that we find the origins of Western medicine. The ‘De Materia Medica’ was the first precursor to all modern pharmacopeias. Meaning ‘drug making’ in Greek, these are books published by governments or medical bodies which contain the directions for the identification of all compound medicines.

Dr Simon creating formulations

Pharmacognosy is a multidisciplinary study drawing on a broad spectrum of biological and socio-scientific subjects including:

botany, medical ethnobotany, medical anthropology, marine biology, microbiology, herbal medicine, chemistry, biotechnology, phytochemistry, pharmacology, pharmaceutics, clinical pharmacy, pharmacy practice.

The contemporary study of pharmacognosy is broken down into;

-         Medical ethnobotany: the study of the traditional use of plants for medicinal purposes

-         Ethnopharmacology: the study of pharmacological qualities of traditional medicinal substances

-         Phytotherapy: the medicinal use of plant extracts

-         Phytochemistry: the study of chemicals derived from plants, including the identification of new drug candidates derived from plant sources

Although most pharmacognostic studies focus on plants and medicines derived from plants, other types of organisms are also regarded as pharmacognostically interesting, in particular:

microbes, like bacteria, fungi etc – think antibiotics – and more recently marine organisms, for example some interesting anti-cancer products derived from sea sponges.

Simon’s journey to becoming a Pharmacognosist…  

Simon graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a degree in ‘Applied Biological Sciences’ and a major in ‘Drug Discovery and Toxicology’.

He went on to get a Masters and PhD in Natural Product Science at King’s College, London. This 3-year programme was where Simon “learnt his trade” under Professor Peter Houghton, before doing a Post Doctorate at Kew Gardens in the the Jodrell Laboratory.

Dr Simon’s academic studies have played just one element of his on-going learning and discovery. On his journey, at home and away, he has been fortunate to meet, train and research alongside fellow inspirational colleagues including Professor Kostermans, James Duke and Mark Blumenthal to name a few.

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