Following is an assignment on the history of aromatherapy that I have submitted for my aromatherapy unit. It is a very brief history, unfortunately, as the word limit was 1700 words (which I exceeded by 267 words!), but I love history and I love aromatherapy so I thought I’d share it here.
In case you’re interested, I vapourised basil, rosemary and lemon essential oils while I wrote it.
Archaeological findings suggest that humans have been using aromatic plants therapeutically, and in ritual for over 9000 years. There is strong evidence indicating that aromatic plants were widely used by the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chinese, Indian, and Arabic civilisations. However, the therapeutic application of essential oils, known as aromatherapy, has its beginnings in the early 20th century.
It’s impossible to say, with authority, when humans first began using aromatic plants medicinally. Aromatic plants were burned by many early cultures as incense during rituals, with ritual & medicinal use being inextricably linked (1,2,3). At some time during the later Neolithic period, from 7000-4000BC, humans learned that fatty oils could be expressed from the fruit and seeds of some plants including olives, flax seeds, and sesame seeds. These expressed oils were then combined with fragrant plants to create ointments (2,3,4 ).
Around 3000BC, in Africa and in the middle east, the Egyptians were importing large quantities of myrrh (2,4); Mesopotamians (present-day Iraq) were burning incense made from cedarwood and myrrh to please Gods and Goddesses (2); three tablets were written in neighbouring Babylon (also present-day Iraq) detailing import orders for oils of cedar, myrrh and cypress, as well as medicinal uses for cypress, and recipes for scented ointments (2,3,4,5); and based on the findings of an archaeological expedition led by Dr Paolo Rovesti in 1975AD, it is believed the people of the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan) may have been distilling essential oils from plants. Dr Rovesti’s expedition found an unusual terracotta apparatus, believed to be a primitive still, displayed in a Taxila museum with terracotta perfume containers (1,2,4).
In 2697AD the first written record of the use of herbal medicine in China was produced (3). The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine, detailed the medicinal uses of several aromatic plants (1). Indian Vedic literature written around 2000BC describes the medicinal and ritual uses of over 700 plants, including aromatics. The Vedic literature, knowledge which has been passed down an unbroken line for over 4000 years, forms the basis of the traditional Indian system of medicine, known as Ayurveda (1).
While it is clear the ritual and therapeutic use of aromatic plants formed an integral part of all known ancient cultures, those most renowned for their use of aromatic preparations are the ancient Egyptians who have so beautifully preserved and documented so much of their rich culture.
The ancient Egyptians used aromatic gums and oils, including myrrh and cedar, to embalm bodies after death. Embalming is a process of preservation so effective that the remains of these plants, and traces of scented oils and ointments were found stored in ornate jars and pots in the Egyptian tombs thousands of years later (1,3). The processes of preparing scented oils, ointments and unguents, and their uses, were documented on papyrus manuscripts and in stone inscriptions (1,2,3). One papyrus recording the use of medicinal plants dates back to around 2800BC, and another papyrus dated to around 2000BC specifically details the use of aromatic oils, perfumes and incenses (1,3,4).
When the Jewish people began their exodus from Egypt to Israel around 1240BC, they took Egyptian gums and oils with them (1). It’s also during this exodus that biblical mythology tells of God giving Moses the recipe for holy anointing oil. Used to consecrate men into priesthood, this holy oil was to be used only for religious purposes (1,2,3).
Rare incenses, aromatic oils and perfumes became some of the earliest, and most prized, trade items of the ancient world. Between 1550-300BC the Phoenicians, “an enterprising maritime trading culture” (7), introduced the west to aromatic treasures from the east. Phoenician merchants exported scented oils and gums from China, India, Syria and Arabia throughout the Mediterranean region, mainly to Greece and Rome (1).
The ancient Greeks learned much about plant lore from the Egyptians. In the 5th century Greeks Herodontus and Democrates, visited Egypt and recorded the information they learned about perfumery and botanical medicines (1). Herodontus recorded the method of distillation of turpentine, as well as information about aromatic preparations (1). The Greek physician, Dioscorides, compiled a detailed five volume materia medica known as the Herbarius (1,4). One of the volumes dealt specifically with fragrance. Hippocrates, ‘the father of medicine’, prescribed perfumed baths and fumigations (1,8) and in Greek medical practice the term ‘iatralypte’ was used to describe a physician whose therapy was the use of aromatics (1,8).
Cleopatra, the last Egyptian queen, more Greek than Egyptian, is legendary for her lavish use of perfumes. She owned a ‘balsam garden’, which by today’s standards would be worth millions of dollars (3). After her death in 30BC, Egypt became a Roman province.
The Romans were even more extravagant than the Egyptians and Greeks with their use of aromatics, using them to perfume their bodies, hair, beds, and clothes (1,3). Scented oils and unguents were used for massage at home and at public baths. The Romans even used aromatics to scent their military flags and their homes (3) and they spread the use of aromatics to each land they conquered.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, and with the advent of Christianity, many surviving Romans fled to Constantinople taking with them the works of Galen, Hippocrates and Dioscorides. After the fall of Constantinople, while Europe was descending into the Dark Ages, the knowledge of the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures passed on to the Middle East (1).
Avicenna (980-1037AD), a Persian alchemist, is credited with the invention of the refrigerator coil, a breakthrough in modern steam distillation (1,3,4,9). He used the refrigerator coil to produce aromatic floral waters, with essential oils originally being considered a by-product because flowers such as rose and neroli produce such minute quantities of essential oil (9). Avicenna wrote close to one hundred books in his lifetime, one solely about the rose, a flower cherished by Islam (1). Rose water was one of the most popular Arabic perfumes, and was brought to Europe along with other exotic essences and Avicenna’s method of distillation, during the Crusades between the 11th and 13th centuries (1,3,5).
In 1190 French perfumers were granted a royal charter by King Philip II (3) and by the time of the fourth crusade in 1202, France had become the perfume making centre of Europe (5). Initially French perfumes were copies of the Arabic perfumes, but toward the end of the 13th century French perfumers had begun to make perfumes from European native herbs, including lavender, rosemary and sage (1). By the 16th century commercial perfumeries were thriving in Europe, particularly at Grasse in southern France (9), and lavender water and essential oils, known then as “chymical oils” were sold at apothecaries across Europe (1).
Following the invention of the printing press in 1440, many herbals were published, leading to more widespread sharing of information. One such publication, The Great Surgery Book, by Swiss physician & alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) describes distillation as the way to produce the ‘quinta essentia’, the healing essence, of a plant (9). Paracelsus also wrote,
“Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines.”
Paracelsus was not alone in this thinking, and during the Renaissance era the medicinal properties of many new and existing essential oils were studied and recorded by pharmacists, physicians and alchemists. By the end of the 17th century a distinction had been made between perfumes and the aromatics that were available at apothecaries (1).
During the 17th century alchemy began to evolve into modern chemistry. Then, owing to the scientific revolution of the early 19th century, modern chemists began to identify active constituents of the oils and give them names such as ‘geraniol’, ‘citronellol’, and ‘cineol’ (1). Ironically, this research led to the development of the synthetic drugs that would eventually become more widely accepted by modern physicians than botanicals, and essential oils had become relegated almost entirely to their role in perfumery and cosmetology.
The therapeutic use of essential oils enjoyed resurgence in the early 20th century, largely due to the work of French cosmetic chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé (1881-1950). In fact, Gattefossé coined the term “aromatherapy”. The legend of Gattefossé, has been widely documented in texts, and websites, as one of chance. According to many accounts, Gattefossé sustained 3rd degree burns to his hand during a laboratory explosion and instinctively plunged his hand into the nearest cold liquid he could find, which happened to be lavender oil. The stories tell of the burning sensation stopping immediately and his skin healing without scarring. Gattefossé’s own account of the laboratory explosion, translated from French to English from his 1937 book Aromatherapie, indicates that he intentionally applied the lavender essential oil to his burn.
“The external application of small quantities of essences rapidly stops the spread of gangrenous sores. In my personal experience, after a laboratory explosion covered me with burning substances which I extinguished by rolling on a grassy lawn, both my hands were covered with a rapidly developing gas gangrene. Just one rinse with lavender essence stopped “the gasification of the tissue”. This treatment was followed by profuse sweating, and healing began the next day (July 1910)” (10)
At the time of the accident Gattefossé had been studying the properties of essential oils for 3 years, he knew the healing effects of lavender oil already and knowingly applied the oil to his burns. (11)
During the Second World War, a colleague of Gattefossé, Dr Jean Valnet (1920-1995) applied essential oil treatments to wounded soldiers and civilians while serving as a physician in the French Army (12). He continued his work with essential oils after the war, becoming the first modern physician to apply aromatherapy to treat psychiatric conditions. (1,13). Valnet documented his findings in the clinical use of aromatherapy in his 1964 book Aromathérapie – Traitment des Maladies par les Essence de Plantes. The book was translated to English and released in 1980 with the title The Practice of Aromatherapy.
Italian chemist and pharmacist Paolo Rovesti furthered the study of clinical benefits of aromatherapy on psychological disorders, primarily focussing on citrus oils – bergamot, orange and lemon – native to his homeland (3,14,15).
Austrian born biochemist Marguerite Maury (1895-1968) is credited with developing aromatherapeutic massage as it is practiced in aromatherapy clinics today (3,16). Maury recognised the importance of making personalised blends for each patient, seeing the profound psychological and physiological benefits of individual prescriptions (8,12). Maury opened aromatherapy clinics in Paris, Switzerland & England (16,17), and her work is noted as having a strong influence in the way aromatherapy is practiced in Britain today. Maury’s book The Secret of Life & Youth, released in English in 1964, is the most well-known and well liked of her writings (16). After Maury’s death her protégé, Danièle Ryman, continued her work. Ryman is considered an authority on aromatherapy in the modern day (13,17).
Also considered a current authority on aromatherapy, English massage therapist Robert Tisserand, who was heavily influenced by the work of Gattefossé, Valnet and Rovesti, wrote the first English language aromatherapy text. Published in 1977, The Art of Aromatherapy, became an inspiration for many subsequent English language books on the topic (13). Tisserand established The Aromatic Oil Company (becoming Tisserand Aromatherapy in 1985 (18)) in 1974, and in 1988 he established both the Tisserand Institute to set standards for aromatherapy education, and The International Journal of Aromatherapy which he continued to edit and publish until 1990 (19).
Aromatic plants have been employed by humans for pleasure and for wellbeing since time immemorial. The use of aromatic plants, and the extraction of essential oils, has been refined by many cultures over thousands of years to arrive at the practice of modern aromatherapy as established in the early 20th century.
- Lawless J. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. London: Thorsons of Harper Collins Publishers, 2002
- Tisserand R. The Art of Aromatherapy. Essex: The C.W. Daniel Company Ltd., 2001
- Worwood VA. The Fragrant Pharmacy: A complete guide to aromatherapy and essential oils. London: Transworld Publishers Ltd., 1990
- Wildwood C. The Book of Aromatherapy Blends. London: Thorsons of Harper Collins Publishers, 1997
- Naylor N. Healing with Essential Oils. Ireland: Gill & Macmillan Ltd., 1997
- Lawless J. Lavender Oil: The new guide to nature’s most versatile remedy. London: Thorsons of Harper Collins Publishers, 1994