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A Brief History of Aromatherapy

Essential oils and their use throughout time

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The use of aromatic oils has a long and honored history.  While the beginnings of their use is sketchy — and no one can say with certainty when or where aromatics were first used — experts believe that they were man's first medicines — pre-dating even the use of herbs.

Records dating back to 4500 B.C. describe the use of balsamic substances with aromatic properties for religious rituals and medical applications.  For many centuries, essential oils and other aromatics were used for religious rituals, the treatment of illness and other physical and spiritual needs.

Ancient writings tell of scented barks, resins, spices and aromatic vinegars, wines and beers that were used in rituals, temples, astrology, embalming and medicine.

Throughout world history, fragrant oils and spices have played a prominent role in everyday life.  One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, on display in Israel at the Shrine of the Book Museum, contains this intriguing phrase: "and he will know his children by their scent."

Aromatic substances in ancient Egypt

By the time Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt (Gen. 37:25ff), the use of aromatic oils had been long-established, and established trade routes facilitated the movement of aromatic substances from one place to another.

The Egyptians may have been the first to discover the potential of fragrance.  They created various aromatic blends, both for personal use and for ceremonies performed in the temples and pyramids.

The Egyptians were masters in using essential oils and other aromatics in the embalming process.  Historical records indicate that one of the founders of "pharaonic" medicine was the architect Imhotep, who was the Grand Vizier of King Djoser (2780 - 2720 B.C.).  Imhotep is often given credit for ushering in the use of oils, herbs and aromatic plants for medicinal purposes.

Temple graphic depicting the medicinal use of aromatic oils in Egypt.

Hieroglyphics on the walls of Egyptian temples depict the blending of oils and describe hundreds of oil recipes.  A sacred room in the Temple of Isis, on the island of Philae, depicts the "Cleansing the Flesh and Blood of Evil Deities", an emotional clearing ritual that required three days of cleansing using essential oils.

An ancient papyrus found in the Temple of Edfu contained medicinal formula and perfume recipes, used by alchemists and high priests, in blending aromatic substances for rituals.

Oils used in the temples were commonly poured into evaporation dishes for fragrancing the chambers associated with sacred rituals and religious rites.

Well before the time of Christ, the ancient Egyptians collected essential oils and placed them in alabaster vessels.  These vessels were specially carved and shaped for housing scented oils.

Essential oils and ancient Egypt and King Tut's tomb

Alabaster jar recovered from Egyptian tomb.

In 1922, when King Tut's tomb was opened, some 50 alabaster jars designed to hold 350 liters of oils were discovered.  While tomb robbers had stolen nearly all of the precious oils, some of the jars still contained oil traces.  The robbers chose oils over a literal king's ransom in glittering gold, showing how valuable fragrant essential oils were to this ancient civilization.

In 1817, the Ebers Papyrus, a medical scroll over 870 feet long, was discovered.  Dating back to 1500 B.C., the scroll included over 800 different herbal prescriptions and remedies.  Other scrolls described a high success rate in treating 81 different diseases.  Many mixtures contained myrrh and honey.  Myrrh is still recognized for its ability to help with infections of the skin and throat, and to regenerate skin tissue.  Because of its effectiveness in preventing bacterial growth, myrrh was also used for embalming.

Perhaps the people of ancient times had a greater understanding of essential oils than we have today.

Aromatics used in cosmetics in Egypt

Many ancient cosmetic formulas were created from a base of goat fat.  Ancient Egyptians formulated eyeliners, eyeshadows and other cosmetics this way.  They also stained their hair and nails with a variety of ointments and perfumes.  They probably used the same aromatic oils that were used in the temples.

Essential oils in the Helenistic and Roman world

The physicians of Ionia, Attia, and Crete (ancient civilizations based in the Mediterranean Sea) came to the cities of the Nile to increase their knowledge.  At this time, the school of Cos was founded and was attended by Hippocrates (460 to 377 B.C.), whom the Greeks, with perhaps some exaggeration, named the "Father of Medicine."

The Romans purified their temples and political buildings by diffusing essential oils.  They also used aromatics in their steam baths, to both invigorate the flesh and ward off disease.

Aromatics in European history

The 12th century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, used herbs and oils extensively in healing.  This Benedictine nun founded her own convent, and was the author of numerous works.  Her book, Physica, has more than 200 chapters on plants and their uses for healing.

After conquering Jerusalem, one of the things the Crusaders brought back to Europe was solidified essence of roses.

Napoleon is reported to have liked a cologne water made of neroli, and other ingredients, so much that he ordered 162 bottles of it.

The re-introduction of essential oils to the western world

Essential oils were reintroduced into modern medicine during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During World War I, the use of aromatic essences in civilian and military hospitals became widespread.  One physician in France, Dr. Moncière, used essential oils extensively for their antibacterial and wound-healing properties, and developed several kinds of aromatic ointments.

René-Maurice Gattefossé, Ph.D., a French cosmetic chemist, is widely regarded as the father of aromatherapy.  He and a group of scientists began studying essential oils in 1907.

Aromatherapy (per se) is born

The Gattefossé myth:

As the story is generally told, Dr. René-Maurice Gattefossé was at work in his lab, mixing chemicals, when there was an explosion.  Having received a serious burn, he sought to cool it.  Thinking a vat was filled with water (yeah! right! like he couldn't smell it?), he dunked his burned arm into it, only to find out that the vat was filled with lavender oil.

So impressed at the power of lavender oil to stop the pain of his burn and speed its healing, he began a serious study into the healing properties of essential oils; and so the term "aroma-therapy" (the therapeutic use of aromatics) was born.

In his 1937 book, Aromathérapie, Dr. Gattefossé told the real story of his now-famous use of lavender essential oil to heal a serious burn.  (The tale has assumed mythic proportions in essential oil literature; see text box at right.)  While the event did not start him on the road to essential oil research (he was already studying the oils), his own words about this accident are even more powerful than what has been told over the years.

Dr. Gattefossé was literally aflame — covered in burning substances — following a laboratory explosion in July, 1910.  After rolling on a grassy lawn to extinguish the flames, he wrote that "both my hands were covered with rapidly developing gas gangrene."  Dr. Gattefossé said that, "just one rinse with lavender essence stopped the gasification of the tissue.  This treatment was followed by profuse sweating, and healing which began the next day."

Robert B. Tisserand, editor of The International Journal of Aromatherapy, searched for Dr. Gattefossé’s book for 20 years.  A copy was located, and Tisserand edited the 1995 reprint.  Tisserand noted that Dr. Gattefossé’s burns "must have been severe to lead to gas gangrene, a very serious infection."

Aromatherapy during World War II and later expansion

Dr. Gattefossé shared his studies with his colleague and friend, Jean Valnet, a medical doctor practicing in Paris.  Exhausting his supply of antibiotics as a physician in Tonkin, China, during World War II, Dr. Valnet began using therapeutic-grade essential oils on patients suffering battlefield injuries.  To his surprise, they exerted a powerful effect in combating and counteracting infection.  He was able to save the lives of many soldiers who might otherwise have died.

Two of Dr. Valnet's students, Dr. Paul Belaiche and Dr. Jean Claude Lapraz, expanded on his work.  They clinically investigated the antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal and antiseptic properties in essential oils.

Because of the work of these doctors and scientists, the healing power of essential oils is again gaining prominence.

Methods used to extract aromatic compounds

Ancient cultures found that aromatic essences — or essential oils — could be extracted from the plant by a variety of methods.

One of the oldest and crudest forms of extraction was known as enfleurage.  Raw plant material (usually stems, foliage, bark or roots) was crushed and mixed with olive oil or animal fat, although other vegetable oils were also used.

In the case of cedar, for example, the bark was stripped from the trunk and branches, ground into a powder, soaked with olive oil and placed in a wool cloth.  The cloth was then heated.  The heat pulled the essential oil out of the bark particles into the olive oil, and the wool was pressed to extract the essential oil.  Sandalwood oil was also extracted in this fashion.

Enfleurage was also used to extract essential oils from flower petals.  (In fact, the literal meaning of the French word "enfleurage" is "to saturate with the perfume of flowers".)  For example, petals from roses or jasmine were placed in goose or goat fat.  The essential oil molecules were pulled from the the petals into the fat, which was then processed to separate out the essential oils.  This ancient technique was among the most primitive forms of essential oil extraction.

Other extraction techniques were also used.  Some of these included:

The distillation of essential oils

The Arabians were another ancient culture that made regular use of aromatics.  We owe to them the developement and refining of the process of distillation.  They perfected the extraction of rose oils and rose water, which were popular in the Middle East during the Byzantine Empire (330 A.D. - 1400 A.D.).

The distillation of essential oils reached a new height in 1992, when Gary Young developed his patented process of steam distillation, using low heat and low pressure, to ensure the extraction of the finest quality essential oils anywhere.  Based on the traditional methods of steam distillation he learned in France and elsewhere, Gary refined the technique to create the best production methods employed in the essential oils industry.


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