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Dr Simon Jackson’s early inspirations – in his own words

Posted by Simon Jackson on
Picture from Dr Simon Jackson's early expeditions

Dr Simon’s academic career saw him hold research positions at King’s College, University of London, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. However, even more influential was his time spent learning from tribal communities around the world, where he became a keen student under knowledgeable shamans and healers in the Amazon, Indonesia and Sub-Saharan Africa:

It all started in Lincolnshire. I grew up in a small village and my love of plants came from my grandmother, Cath Jackson. She was a keen amateur gardener, extremely proud of her garden.  I remember she had a beautiful allium and cardoons that came up year after year, which were quite an unusual and rare sight in the early ‘70s.

From a young age, I helped my grandmother tender to her much-loved plants and she taught me all their latin names.  She also introduced me to Sir Joseph Banks, a famous Lincolnshire botanist. There is a big monument to him in Lincoln Cathedral, and his hometown of Horncastle was close by, so the seed was planted!

Your career has centred on the study of traditional plants – why?

I studied ‘Applied Biological Sciences’ and specialised in ‘Drug Discovery and Toxicology’ at Manchester Metropolitan University.  It was there that I first learnt about Ethnobotany, and how traditional cultures use plants. I found it fascinating and so as part of my degree I undertook an expedition to Indonesia in 1992 to learn more.

We lived on an island called Sumba and I took part in what was one of the first conservation projects in an Indonesian primary rainforest. I was cataloguing species of plants around the island and understanding from the locals any economic uses they had, medicinal or otherwise.

I met the local ladies in the market making Jamu, a natural health tonic, and selling all the raw ingredients. Every tribe or family had a different recipe. It was amazing to see everyone so healthy and living to ripe old ages with no Western interventions, chewing betel nuts and spitting the bright red saliva all over the floor.

Herb market - Indonesia.

One day I met the village chief; I had wandered into the rainforest and he found me walking in the wrong direction! He kindly returned me to camp on the back of his indigenous pony with the hornbills and the Sumbanese green pigeons flying around us at dusk. He told me first hand about the traditional uses of plants and it was on this journey that I had my cathartic moment realising it was traditional plants I wanted to study… I was hooked.

When and why did your focus turn to cosmetics?

In the early ‘90s, natural cosmeceutical products were just starting to become a trend.  It quickly became clear that ‘natural’ brands were launching products which weren’t natural at all. They are what we call ‘naturally inspired’ and made claim after claim, but with no real scientific knowledge being used.

Cosmeceuticals describes something that is part cosmetic – enhancing your appearance – and part pharmaceutical – giving you a desired result at the cellular level.  I started to think, wouldn’t it be great if I approached the cosmetic market using pharmacognosy principles?

Your namesake brand was your first venture into therapeutic cosmetic products derived directly from plant extracts. How did that come about?

For me it was always more about keeping alive the discipline of Pharmacognosy,

I think the beauty industry had been exposed to many ‘kitchen sink’ cosmeticians, who had started their businesses literally on the kitchen table. Thankfully the press and customers alike were immediately receptive of the ‘real deal’; a company founded on science and evidence-based research.

We went on to get mentions of the Pharmacognosy discipline in Vogue, GQ, Tatler and many other widely read publications. It was quite something to bring this specialised area of study into the mainstream media. I’d like to think we really forged the way for what can only now be described as the golden age of natural products.

In 2016 we had an opportunity to successfully exit the brand, which is when my husband and I moved to West Cork and founded Modern Botany. The rest, as they say, is history.

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