A brief history of aromatherapy

Around 3000BC in Egypt, aromatic plants, herbs, spices were already in use and were burnt to please the Gods. Egyptians used fragrances in their daily lives and became the masters of aromatics. They used oils for embalming (cedar) and during religious ceremonies (Frankincense, cinammon). The trade of herbs and spices was blooming in Egypt, Greece, India, Mesopotamy and China.

In 2700BC in China, the Shennong’s Herbal book was written, containing information on 365 plants and their healing effects while in India, Ayurvedic medicine already existed and The Vedas, the most sacred book, was mentioning over 700 different herbs and aromatics codified by their usage for religious and therapeutic purposes. In ancient Greece, plants were mascerated in olive oil to create fragrance oils for massage. Asclepius was the God of medicine and healing and was depicted with a snake , still the symbol of medicine today.

Circa 460-370BC, the physician Hippocrates and Father of medicine developed the concept of holism and cured diseases with herbs, baths and massages. Athens and Babylon became the aromatics centre of the world and later on, Theophrastus of Athens, the founder of botany wrote The History of Plants, a reference used centuries thereafter.

At the time of Jesus, essential oils and aromatic plants were also used and are mentionned in the Bible.

In the 1st century, physician and Father of pharmacology, Dioscorides, develops the 1st pharmacopeia “De Materia Medica” where he describes 1000 herbs. Around 126AD, Claudius Galien, a Greek phyisician, surgeon and philosopher who believed in the healing powers of nature revived the ideas of Hippocrates and other Greek physicians in Rome where he was living. Romans favored oils for massage and burnt herbs and plants for aromatics. The word perfume was created coming from the Latin par fumier – through smoke-.

At the end of the 11th century, the Arab world becomes the center for herbalism and Abu Ali Ibn Sina (973-1037 AD), an Arab physician publishes Canon Medicinae in which he describes 800 herbs. He develops the distillation process to extract essential oils and herbal medicine is developed using Greek and Roman medical books. Rose and chamomille gain notoriety for their healing properties and frankincense and myrrh are imported in Rome for medicine, ceremonies and fragrances.

In the 12th century, herbal remedies are brought to Europe and Abbess Hildegard (1098-1179) writes the Causes and Cures of Illness. She used essential oil of lavender for its medicinal properties. In the following centuries with the crusades, knowledge on herbal remedies circulate the world and are used in forms of ointments, pomanders, infusions. However, herbal medicine is considered as witchcraft and in the 13th and 14th centuries, medicine is governed by the Church in Europe and diseases are cured in the form of prayers. It is also the time when the Black Death hits Europe resulting in killing 30% to 60% of the European population. People involved in perfumary were less likely touched because of the manipulation of essential oils.

In 1597, John Gerard published ‘General History of Plantes‘  that became a reference in herbal medicine and in the same century, German physician, Jerome de Brunswick documented 25 essential oils.

The Great Plague hits in 1665 and essential oils are widely used to combat it thanks to Nicolas Culpepper who promoted the use of herbal remedies and plants to fight pest, diseases and infections (cloves, orange, peppermint).

In the 19th century, essential oils are used in perfumes and medicines. However, with the development of allopathic medicine, essential oils and herbal remedies are slowly forgotten until 1937, when French chemist Gattefosse revived the interest in the healing properties of essential oils. He burnt his hand while working in the laboratory and started developing a gangrene that doctors could not cure. By putting his hand in lavender oil, it healed vey quickly with little scaring. He created the term aromatherapy and spent his life researching essential oils. Other major researchers included Doctor Jean Valnet who was using essential oils to treat wounds on soldiers during the war, Austrian biochemist, Marguerite Maury, who introduced essential oils in aromatherapy massage treatments and cosmetics and Robert B. Tisserand, an English aromatherapist who brought this alternative therapy to English speaking countries.

In the 50 and 60’s, when antibiotics became popular, doctors still prefered to use essential oils for the quick results they were bringing and promoted research on the therapeutic effects of essential oils.

Today, aromatherapy is gaining importance again. In France, aromatherapy is used in orthodox medicine and counts 1500 doctors trained as aromatherapists who can prescribe essential oils for external or internal use. It is used in spas all over the world, in hospitals, at some workplace, at home, in many products such as detergents, food for flavoring, pot pourris. In Orient, people still burn herbs, woods, incense to create aromatics used during religious ceremonies, worshipings, burrials.