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History Of Aromatherapy

Oct 30, 2007
It is thought that the Chinese were the first civilization to use aromatic plants for health related reasons, such as burning incense for harmony. However it was the Egyptians who invented the first distillation techniques, thus allowing the extraction of essential oils. Their distillation methods were crude, but allowed them to use the oils of cedarwood, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and myrrh to embalm their dead. Tombs opened by archaeologists in the early twentieth century revealed traces of herbs and a faint herbal scent.

The Egyptians also used essential oils and infused oils for spiritual, medicinal and cosmetic purposes. They started creating aromatic infusions over 5,000 years ago. Many believe they developed the term perfume, originating from the Latin 'per fumum', meaning through the smoke. Perfumery was closely linked to ancient Greek religion, and each deity was allotted a fragrance.

Aromatic scents were the focus of Greek aromatherapy, used medically, in food preservation, cosmetics, cooking as well as religion. Aromatherapeutic ideas also played a part in the design and layout of towns, with large spaces allocated to the burning of herbs to keep the air germ free.

Ancient Egyptian rulers imported exotic scents from countries they had conquered as a symbol of their power, both economically and politically.

The Greeks learnt a lot from the Egyptians. After visiting the Nile Valley in 500 B.C. they set up a medical school on the Island of Cos, of which the most famous graduate was Hippocrates, 'the father of medicine'. He recommended a daily bath and massage with essential oils for a healthy life.

The Romans furthered the knowledge they obtained from the Egyptians and Greeks. Discordes wrote a treatus called De Materia Medica, which referenced more than 500 medicinal plants. Roman herbalist Galen was influenced by this treatus and wrote what became the world's medical reference for over 1,500 years.

The Romans really took the use of aromatic scents to a new level. Spice filled pipes perfumed Nero's guests in his palace, perfumed cups were very popular, and there were fragrant watering spots around the city. Aromatic perfumes remained popular when the focus of learning moved from Rome to Constantinople (now known as Istanbul).

The Arabs were the first to distil alcohol from fermented sugar. This discovery created a solvent other than oils and waxes for infusions, leading to popular luxuries such as floral waters. With this distillation the scents and powerful therapeutic abilities of essential oils were brought to light and explored.

Distilling Essential Oils

Distillation techniques were furthered in the eleventh century by a Persian physician, Avicenna who invented a coiled pipe allowing more efficient and effective cooling of plant vapour and steam. This more effective technique created more focus on essential oils and their benefits.

In the thirteenth century the pharmaceutical industry commenced encouraging great distillation of essential oils. This created a sound basis of knowledge regarding the use of essential oils for the Black Death of the fourteenth century, which killed 80 million people across Europe. Aromatherapy was used to allieve the situation. Aromatic herbs and scented candles were burned to combat the stench and help disinfect the air. It is thought that some perfumers avoided the plague due to their constant contact with the natural aromatics.

Aromatic herbs were similarly used during the Bubonic Plague in the sixteenth century when doctors wore big hats with huge beaks filled with aromatic herbs to disinfect the air. At this stage a concrete link between aromatics and health was established, as perfumed air was recognized as antiseptic as well as pleasant. By 1700, essential oils were used in mainstream medicine. However, the development of chemistry at this time weakened the use of essential oils for medicinal purposes.

Popular Aromatherapy Uses

It wasn't until the beginning of the twentieth century that essential oils and aromatics regained their popularity. A French chemist called Renee Maurice Gattefosse studied essential oils for their aromatic use. However, his focus changed to their medicinal properties after an accident at work. He badly burnt his arm and in reflex plunged it into the closest liquid which happened to be lavender essential oil. His arm healed very quickly and did not scar, which prompted his study of the medicinal uses of essential oils. Gattefosse coined the term 'aromatherapy' in 1928, and in 1937 he wrote a book called 'Gattefosse's Aromatherapy', which is still in print and widely read.

In the late 1950's Madam Marguerite Maury studied how essential oils could be used to penetrate the skin for health and beauty reasons. She developed massage methods that are still used by aromatherapists today. In her book 'The Secret of Life and Youth' she develops the concept of individual prescription, a blend specific to the individual patient.
Dr Jean Valnet, a French doctor who treated soldiers in World War Two with essential oils, documented the antimicrobial action of oils in his 1964 book 'The Practice of Aromatherapy'. As a result of his work, France developed a successful medical aromatherapy, in which essential oils are used by the medical profession.

For the majority of the past century, aromatherapy has been restricted to the beauty industry and largely unaccepted in the medical profession. It is a combination of Maury's development of the concept of individual prescription and the success of medical aromatherapy in France that has lead to a more medical approach and acceptance of aromatherapy in Britain and the United States over the past few years. Aromatherapy has now split into two key areas; beauty and medical, both of which are equally important and are increasingly being recognized as areas and techniques which complement each other.
About the Author
Duncan Bain is the founder and owner of Natural Touch Aromatherapy specialising in the supply of high quality pure essential oils, carrier oils, hydrolats and a wide range of Aromatherapy products. Here he gives us an insight into the History of Aromatherapy .
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