The History of Aromatherapy

Although the term “aromatherapy” and the contemporary practice originated in the 20th Century, the use of essential oils and the foundations of aromatherapy have been present for thousands of years. Several ancient civilizations understood the powerful healing properties of aromatherapy and archaeological findings trace its use as far back as primitive man. The earliest pictorial references of aromatherapy were found on the walls of the Lascaux caves in southwestern France and are thought to date back to approximately 18,000 B.C.

The history of aromatherapy, in a practical sense, is believed to have begun over 6,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, the cradle of medicine, pharmacology, perfumery and cosmetology. The ancient Egyptians burned aromatic woods, leaves, resins, herbs and spices to honour their gods, made use of simple fragrances in their daily lives for perfumery as well as in skin and body care, and aromatic oils and resins were also used during the mummification process. The compound incense of Kyphi, which is said to have been made of over 16 different ingredients including myrrh, juniper, cedar, cinnamon, and cardamom, was also used by ancient Egyptian priests for both spiritual and medicinal purposes.

During the same time in China, one of the earliest herbal texts was written by Shen-nung, documenting the healing effects of over 350 plants.

In India, the use of plants reflected the religious and philosophical view of man as part of the continually changing process of nature.  The practice of ayurveda incorporated several aromatic extracts into healing potions and ointments and the sacred book of “The Vedas” also mentioned over 700 different herbs and aromatic plants for medicinal and therapeutic use.

The wisdom of ancient Egypt was then assimilated by many other cultures, including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Hebrews, and the Greeks. Asclepius, the earliest known Greek physician, combined the use of herbs and surgery in 1200 B.C. and his reputation was so great, that after his death, he was deified as the god of healing in Greek mythology. Hippocrates (circa 460-377 B.C.), considered the “Father of Medicine” and was said to have studied over 200 different herbs during his lifetime, was the first physician to dismiss the belief of the ancient Egyptians that illness was caused by supernatural forces.  His approach was a completely holistic one. By carefully observing the symptoms of his patients, he was better able to judge the cause of illness. He then employed aromatic baths, massage, and herbal infusions in his treatments to treat the diseases.

The ancient Romans also employed aromatherapy in their daily lives. Claudius Galen, a Greek physician employed by the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was also known to treat wounded soldiers and gladiators with medicinal plants, herbal remedies and ointments.

With the crumbling of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Dark Ages, the emergence of the Arabian empire was born.  It was the Persians who then made the most influential contributions to the field of aromatherapy.  Al-Razi (865-925), considered one of Persia’s finest physicians, penned over 230 books and articles relating to several scientific fields, including medicine. His most prominent work was the “Al Kitab al Hawi”, a series of over 25 medical books, which were then translated into Latin and other European languages.  Later in the 10th Century, an Arab scholar named Avicenna was credited with discovering the process of distillation in addition to his writing of 20 books and over 100 treatises on medicine as well as theology, metaphysics, astronomy, philosophy, philology, and poetry.

Later in the 14th Century, the bubonic plague, also known as the “Black Death”, was sweeping through Europe.  During this time, frankincense and pine resins were burned in the streets as well as in homes, and resins and herbs were also worn around the neck to help ward off disease.  It is widely reported that those who were in closest contact with aromatics, such as perfumers, were virtually immune.

In the 15th Century, Italians developed the art of perfumery. It is reported that when Catherine de Medici went to France to marry King Henry II, she brought along her perfumer, Cosimo Ruggieri, and created a vogue for aromatic products across Europe.

During the 17th Century, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), a botanist, physician, astrologer and one of the most influential herbalists, wrote the “The English Physician” and “Complete Herbal”, which contain a wealth of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge, so much so that his “Complete Herbal” is still in print today.

The modern term “aromatherapie” was coined by René-Maurice Gattefossé (1881-1950), a French chemist who studied the medicinal properties of essential oils while working in his family’s perfumery business in the 1920s. After an explosion in his laboratory caused a severe burn to his hand, he plunged his hand into pure lavender oil and immediately noticed the noticed the healing aspects of the oil.  The swelling of his hand began to recede almost instantly and the oil accelerated the healing process, leaving no sign of infection or scarring. His passion for essential oils led him to publish his groundbreaking work, “Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales”.

The work of Gattefossé was then followed by Dr. Jean Valnet, a French doctor renowned for his invaluable contributions to the field of aromatherapy. Valnet was the first physician to use essential oils to treat psychiatric conditions.  His book “Aromathérapie – Traitment des Maladies par les Essence de Plantes”, which was released in 1964, was translated into English in 1980, titled “The Practice of Aromatherapy”, and helped bring aromatherapy as a valued form of therapy to the forefront.

Madame Marguerite Maury (1895-1968) also made a notable contribution to the science and art of aromatherapy and is considered “The Legendary Pioneer of Aromatherapy”. An Austrian born biochemist, Maury studied the penetrative properties of essential oils through the skin.  Based on her own work, as well as the research of Gattefossé, she led the way in the use of essential oils in both beauty therapy and healthcare. Together wither her husband, she explored homeopathy, naturopathy, osteopathy, and radiesthesia and wrote several books on the subjects including “Le Capital Jeunesse”, which sadly did not receive the acclaim it deserved until 1964 when it was re-released in Britain under the title, “Guide to Aromatherapy: The Secret of Life and Youth”.

Later in 1977, after being stimulated by the work of Valnet and Gattefossé, an Englishman named Robert Tisserand wrote the very first book in English, “The Art of Aromatherapy”, which has become an inspiration and reference book for virtually all present-day authors of aromatherapy as well as professional aromatherapists.