A Brief History of Aromatherapy
Ancient Cultures and Essential Oils
Many ancient cultures recognized the physical and psychological benefits of scented ointments and oils. Egyptians use of aromatic botanicals started with the mummification process of the bodies of the deceased, embalmers used different botanicals such as cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, and juniper.
Ancient Egyptians knowledge of essential oils healing power inspired Romans to use them after their invasion of Egypt, hence, using aromatic botanicals such as fir, juniper, and pine in bath houses. Israelites used essential oils such as frankincense, cedar wood, hyssop, fir, and spikenard to heal wounds and elevate spiritual communion. A prominent example of the value that essential oils had in Israelite culture is in the telling of the birth of Jesus, to whom gifts were given of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, maintained 2,500 years ago that “the key to good health rests on having a daily aromatic bath and scented massage’. Some of the plant materials Dioscorides wrote about in his Materia Medica 100 AD include many of the herbs and essential oils we use today including cardamom, cinnamon, myrrh, basil, fennel, frankincense, juniper, pine, rose, rosemary, and thyme. Scented ointments and oils were recognized as having great benefit on both the physical and psychological level. Bay laurel was used to produce a trance-like state; rose, myrtle and coriander were respected for their aphrodisiac properties, while myrrh and marjoram were used as sedatives.
Aromatic oils were used in China and India during the same period as ancient Egypt. One of the principle aspects of ayurvedic medicine is massage with aromatic oils. Jasmine was used as a general tonic for the entire body. Rose was employed as an antidepressant and used to strengthen the liver. Chamomile was given for headaches, dizziness and colds. Many of the properties ascribed to herbs and aromatic oils by the ancients are regarded as valid today.
Distillation of essential oils is credited to the Persians. Avicenna (980 AD–1037 AD) invented the refrigerated coil in the distillation process of plants and made it possible to distill essential oils and floral waters (hydrosols).
A German physician, Hieronymus Braunschweig, wrote several books on essential oil distillation which went through hundreds of editions in every European language. In 1597 he referenced 25 essential oils including rosemary, lavender, clove, cinnamon, myrrh, and nutmeg. Many books about distillation of essential oils were written in the 16th century, especially in Germany, which seemed to be the center of European aromatherapy renaissance.
Antibacterial Properties of Essential Oils
The role of microorganisms in disease was recognized in the 1880’s and by 1887 French physicians recorded laboratory tests on the antibacterial properties of essential oils. These early tests resulted from the observation that there was a low incidence of tuberculosis in the flower growing districts in southern France. In 1888 a similar paper was published showing the micro-organisms of glandular and yellow fever were easily killed by active properties of oregano, Chinese cinnamon, angelica and geranium.
By the nineteenth century the role of the medical doctor was well established and in spite of regular use of essential oils, the medical professional became firmly fixed on isolating the active principles of natural substances and producing chemical drugs based on the identified “active ingredient” of the natural substance.
Antiseptic Properties of Essential Oils
In 1910, Rene Gattefosse discovered the healing properties of lavender after severely burning his hands in a laboratory explosion. He later used the wound healing and antiseptic properties of essential oils in the care of soldiers in military hospitals during WWI. Gattefosse coined the term “aromatherapy” with the 1937 publication of his book, of the same name. Gattefosse’s book has since been translated into English as Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy (1993). Dr. Jean Valnet, a French army surgeon used essential oils in the treatment of war wounds during the French Indochina War and wrote the book, Practice of Aromatherapy, which was translated into the English in 1964.
In the last 200 years, there has been a break in using aromatic botanicals in our daily lives. Mediations have become our first stop rather than last resort. Usage of antibiotics, painkillers, and other medications have skyrocketed and we don’t seem to be healthier. Academic and regulatory organizations have started advocating integrative medicine where we can use the plethora of knowledge passed to us by our ancestors as well as the luxury of modern medicine.
Essential Oils and Scientific Research
Below are some examples of multiple organizations and media starting to recognize the positive impact of aromatherapy:
Preliminary research studies on essential oils show positive effects for a variety of health concerns including digestive issues, infections, pain, congestion, anxiety, depression, tumors, premenstrual syndrome, and many more. In order for scientific and regulatory bodies to prescribe essential oils for more serious issues, there will need to be more research. Until then, we can still enjoy natural remedies for minor ailments first.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The contents of this website is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please consult your medical professional before starting any new regimen or change your prescribed medication
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