History of aromatherapy

A Brief History of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is not only a new trend that is growing more and more popular, but a science and artform for thousands of years.  Anthropologists speculate that the most primitive forms of perfumery began with the burning of gums and resins for incense, and smudging with aromatic plant materials, things that we still participate in today. From the history of the Egyptian culture, we have learned how the resins, balms, and fragrant oils were used by the priests. Priests were more than just the typical thought of priests of our modern culture. Priests were also the doctors, for magical and religious ceremonies, for embalming, and as an offering to their gods. 

There were many different ancient cultures that recognized the physical and psychological benefits of scented ointments and oils. Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, maintained 2,500 years ago that “the key to good health rests on having a daily aromatic bath and scented massage’. Even a few of the plant materials Discorides wrote about in his Materia Medica 100 AD include many of the herbs and essential oils we commonly use today. Some of the oils that he mentions are cardamon, cinnamon, myrrh, basil, fennel, frankincense, juniper, pine, rose, rosemary, and thyme. Scented ointments and oils were recognized as having great benefit on both the physical and psychological level. Each of the oils had special uses, for example bay laurel was used to produce a trance-like state; rose, myrtle and coriander were admired for their aphrodisiac properties, while myrrh and marjoram were used as sedatives.

It is well known that aromatic oils were also used in China and India during the same period as ancient Egypt. One of the principle aspects of ayurvedic medicine, a system of healing that originated in ancient India, is massage with aromatic oils. 

Yet again different oils had their own purposes. Jasmine was often used as a general tonic for the entire body with many different positive elements. Rose was relied on as an antidepressant and used to strengthen the liver. Chamomile was given for headaches, dizziness and colds. They weren't that far off either - as many of the properties ascribed to herbs and aromatic oils by the ancients are still regarded as valid today.

Distillation of essential oils has been credited to the Persians in the 10th century, although there is evidence of distillation long before that by other multiple ancient cultures. By the 16th century printed books were readily available and gave rise to a new era of progress and the spread of knowledge. A German physician, Hieronymus Braunschweig, wrote several books on essential oil distillation which went through hundreds of editions in every European language In 1597 he referenced 25 essential oils included rosemary, lavender, clove, cinnamon, myrrh, and nutmeg. Many books about distillation of essential oils were written in the 16th century, especially in Germany, which seemed to be the center of European aromatherapy renaissance.

The role of micro-organisms in disease was recognized in the 1880’s and by 1887 French physicians first recorded laboratory tests on the anti-bacterial properties of essential oils. These early tests resulted from the observation that there was a low incidence of tuberculosis in the flower growing districts in southern France. In 1888 a similar paper was published showing the micro-organisms of glandular and yellow fever were easily killed by active properties of oregano, Chinese cinnamon, angelica and geranium.

By the nineteenth century the role of the medical doctor was well established and in spite of regular use of essential oils, the medical professional became firmly fixed on isolating the active principles of natural substances and producing chemical drugs based on the identified “active ingredient” of the natural substance. However, it could be noted that, the French and German medical profession maintained a close connection with the healing properties of botanicals and did not experience the schism with botanical medicine as we have experienced in the United States over the last two hundred years.

In 1910, Rene Gattefosse discovered the healing properties of lavender after severely burning his hands in a laboratory explosion. He later used the wound healing and antiseptic properties of essential oils in the care of soldiers in military hospitals during WWI. Gattefosse coined the term “aromatherapy” with the 1937 publication of his book, of the same name. Gattefosse’s book has since been translated into English as Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy (1993). Dr. Jean Valnet, a French army surgeon used essential oils in the treatment of war wounds during the French Indochina War and wrote the book, Practice of Aromatherapy, which was translated into the English in 1964.

Marguerite Maury, a French biochemist and nurse, lectured and gave seminars in the early 30ies throughout Europe on the rejuvenating properties of essential oils and resulting overall sense of well being they provided.