Remembering Dr Ian Jackson, a “Founding Father” of Cleft Care

7 August 2020 | Smile Train

Smile Train mourns the loss of Dr Ian Jackson, a man who lived each day of his 85 years with energy, joy, and a profound sense of purpose. Universally regarded as one of the “founding fathers” of modern cleft care, he was also the founding chair of Smile Train’s Medical Advisory Board (MAB), our guiding panel of leading medical professionals from around the world.

Dr. Ian Jackson

Dr Jackson began his career as a plastic surgeon in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1969. In his 10 years there, he discovered a passion for craniomaxillofacial surgery, particularly the treatment of cleft lips and palates.

From Glasgow, he moved his family to Minnesota, where he served for 10 years as a professor and head of plastic surgery at the Mayo Clinic. After a decade there, it was on to Michigan, where Dr Jackson became Director of the Institute of Craniofacial Reconstructive Surgery as well as Chief of Plastic Surgery at Providence Hospital in Southfield, outside of Detroit. But this hardly scratches the surface of a career that saw him win numerous prestigious awards, serve on the editorial boards of medical journals around the world, and deliver over 500 lectures across six continents, training three generations of surgeons through his technique and example. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that he wrote the book on craniofacial surgery, because he did — 1985’s Local Flaps in Head and Neck Reconstruction, a foundational text that is still taught in medical schools the world over.

Yet, for all his accomplishments and travel, he was never happier than when he was home with his wife, Marjorie, and their five children. It’s fitting that the incident he is most famous for proves how inseparable his devotion to his patients was from his love for his own children. In the mid-1980s, a Swiss charity worker in Peru met a two-year-old boy in a poorly equipped hospital named David. The boy’s family had left him to die in the middle of the rainforest because of a condition that left him without a nose or upper jaw. The worker reached out to Dr Carlos Navarro, a world-renowned craniofacial surgeon in Peru and a future Smile Train partner, for help. The doctor knew exactly who this child needed. He flew him to Glasgow, where Dr Jackson began a series of extensive surgeries to remake David’s face. The two grew so close during this time that, once David’s surgeries were completed, the Jacksons welcomed him into their family by legally adopting him.

It was this love for his work and his patients that drew Dr Jackson to Smile Train. He was a member of 43 medical societies over the course of his career (and an honorary member of 17 more), but his role as the first chair, and later chair emeritus, of Smile Train’s Medical Advisory Board always held a special place in his heart. Here, he saw everything he loved and had dedicated his life to — advancing plastic surgery, helping people with clefts, educating surgeons around the world — come together to transform the lives of some of the most vulnerable children on earth.

Dr. Jackson mingles at a Smile Train event

For his successor on the MAB, Dr Larry Hollier, Dr Jackson was more than just a role model; he was the man who changed his life. “This loss is incredibly personal,” he said. “I had always planned to be a cardiovascular surgeon like my father until I was called in to assist on a case that Dr Jackson was performing. I was so impressed by both him and the operation that I went back to the other technicians and told them that I was going to be a plastic surgeon. So many years later, his infectious personality and magnetism are still vivid in my memory.… To this day, I consider it the professional honour of my life that I succeeded him as MAB chair.”

Susannah Schaefer, Smile Train’s President and CEO, concurs, saying, “I join the entire Smile Train family in sending love and sympathy to Marjorie and her children and grandchildren. I learnt so much from Dr Jackson and will sorely miss his wisdom, warmth, and humour. But I am comforted by the thought that he will live on forever through the thousands and thousands of children now and in the future who will live and smile their brightest thanks to him.”