Aromatherapy refers to the inhalation and topical application of true, authentic essential oils from aromatic plants to restore or enhance health, beauty and well-being.

The field of aromatherapy activity is quite wide, ranging from the deep and penetrating therapeutic actions of essential oils to the extreme subtlety of fragrance on the psyche. One of the uses of aromatherapy is to strengthen the self-healing processes by preventative methods and indirect stimulation of the immune system.

Brief History of Aromatherapy

Anthropologists speculate that primitive perfumery began with the burning of gums and resins for incense, and smudging with aromatic plant material. From the history of the Egyptian culture, we have learned how the resins, balms, and fragrant oils were used by the priests, who were also the doctors, for magical and religious ceremonies, for embalming, and as an offering to their gods.

Many ancient cultures recognized the physical and psychological benefits of scented ointments and oils. 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 Discorides wrote about in his Materia Medica 100 AD include many of the herbs and essential oils we use today includin cardamon, 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.

It is well known that 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 in the 10th century, although there is evidence of distillation long before that by other ancient cultures. By the 16th century printed books were readily available and gave rise to a new era of progress and the spread of knowledge. 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.

The role of micro-organisms in disease was recognized in the 1880’s and by 1887 French physicians first recorded laboratory tests on the anti-bacterial 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. However, it could be noted that, the French and German medical profession maintained a close connection with the healing properties of botanicals and did not experience the schism with botanical medicine as we have experienced in North American over the last two hundred years.

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 English in 1964.

Marguerite Maury, a French biochemist and nurse, lectured and gave seminars in the early 30ies throughout Europe on the rejuvenating properties of essential oils and resulting overall sense of well being they provided.

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