A Brief History of Aromatherapy

aromatherapy-careerAromatherapy and essential oils are the use of volatile plant oils for enhancing the physical and psychological well-being. The use of aromatherapy is centuries old, although the use of the term did not surface until the 20th Century. In particular, the use of essential oils dates back nearly a thousand years ago.

One of the first cultures to make use of aromatic oils to enhance well-being may very well be China. They found burning incense helpful for creating balance and harmony. Soon after, the Egyptians invented a simple crude distillation machine for extracting the oil from cedarwood. Some consider that India and Persia also invented crude distillation machines.

The Egyptians used cedar wood, cinnamon, myrrh, clove and nutmeg oils to embalm the dead. Traces of these herbs were discovered with portions of the intact body, when in the early 20th century a tomb was opened. The scent was still noticeable, although it was faint. Other oils used by the Egyptians were more than likely infused oils; the oil of cedarwood was distilled using a crude distillation process. Infused oils and herbal preparations were often useful to the Egyptians for medicinal, cosmetic, fragrant and spiritual applications. It is possible that the Egyptians coined the word perfume, from the Latin word per fumum that translate into as through the smoke. Egyptian men made use of fragrance as eagerly as the women of that time did. The men often would fragrance themselves by placing a solid cone of perfume atop their heads; gradually it would melt and then cover them with the fragrance.

Although, Greek mythology credits the gods for the gifts and knowledge of perfumes, Greek Amphora for Perfume the Greeks learned a great deal of information from the Egyptians. The Greeks were keen to recognize the aromatic and medicinal benefits of plants. Hippocrates the father of medicine used both medicinal and aromatic fumigations. Megllus, a Greek perfumer created a perfume he called megaleion.

Myrrh Oil
Megaleion included myrrh in a fatty oil base and it served various purposes: 1) for its anti-inflammatory properties on the skin, 2) because it heals wounds and 3) for it aroma. The knowledge of the Egyptians and the Greeks was useful to the Roman Empire. Discorides wrote a book titled De Materia Medica. It described the properties of roughly five-hundred plants. Reportedly, Discorides also studied distillation. However, distillation of that time centered on extracting aromatic floral waters and not that of essential oils.

During the 11th century, the invention of a coiled cooling pipe was a major event in the distillation of essential oils. Avicenna, a Persian by birth invented a coiled pipe that permitted the vapors and steam of plants to cool down more efficiently than any previous distillers using a straight cooling pipe did. The contributions of Avicenna lead to a more focused concentration of essential oils and their various benefits. During the 12th century, Hildegard, an Abbess of Germany grew and then distilled lavender for its medicinal properties.

The pharmaceutical industry was born during the 13th century and this event promoted a significant distillation of essential oils. The Burning of Natural Aromatics The Black Death occurred during the 14th century and killed a multitude of individuals. Herbal applications were useful for helping to fight this devastation. Many believe that the majority of perfumers avoided this plague because of their continual contact with natural aromatics. More plants were distilled to create essential oils during the 15th century. They included such plants as sage, rose, rosemary, frankincense and juniper.

Later in that same century the number of books, about herbs and their various properties increased. An alchemist, medical doctor and radical thinker by the name of Paracelcus, is credited for coining the word Essence. His studies challenged the nature of alchemy, while he concentrated on the use of plants as medicine. During the 16th century, many more essential oils came into production and they were purchased at an apothecary.

Vintage perfume bottle
Perfume became more clearly definable as a field of its own, during the 16th and 17th centuries, while being considered as an art form. Perfume was a prosperous industry during the 19th century. Many women commissioned their jewelers to make special bottles to hold their treasured perfumes. During this time, some of the major components of essential oils became inaccessible. The knowledge of separating the components of essential oils was useful during the 20th century to create various synthetic drugs and chemicals. At that time is was considered that separating the major components and them making use of the components alone or in synthetic forms was most beneficial in the sense of economy and therapeutics.

These discoveries lead to synthetic fragrances and modern medicine. Actually, this weakened the usefulness of essential oils for aromatic and medicinal benefits. Ren-Maurice Gattefoss a French chemist became interested in the use of essential oils for their medicinal uses, near the beginning of the 20th century. Although, he first concentrated on essential oils aromatic uses, his interest in their medicinal uses increased after an accident. He had suffered a very bad burn while working and on reflex, he submerged his burned arm into the closest liquid, which was that of a large vat of the essential oil lavender. His burn healed rather quickly and left no scarring. He is credited for coining the word aromatherapy in 1928 in an article that he wrote supporting the use of whole essential oils rather than breaking them down into primary components. He also wrote a book in 1937, titled Aromathrapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones vgtales.

Later, it was translated into English and titled Gattefoss’s Aromatherapy. It is in print and widely read today. Robert B. Tisserand, Madam Marguerite Maury and Jean Valnet were other highly respected aromatherapists of the 20th century. Jean Valnet made use of essential oils to treat injured soldiers during the war and wrote a book titled The Practice of Aromatherapy. Madam Marguerite Maury, a biochemist, studied, practiced and taught about the uses of aromatherapy for cosmetic purposes.

Robert B. Tisserand, an aromatherapist is responsible for introducing aromatherapy to English speaking nations. In 1977, he published a book titled The Art of Aromatherapy. The use of essential oils for aromatic, cosmetic and therapeutic applications has increased from the late 20th century and into the 21st century.

The use of essential oils never stopped, however their popularity and use dropped during the scientific revolution. Today, the use of essential oils for fragrant, cosmetic, therapeutic and spiritual use is on the rise with the available aromatherapy information found in books and online.

Aromatherapy Essential Oils Chart:


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