The essential oils used in today’s aromatherapy have been in existence for less than 1,000 years. However, ancient cultures were using the aromatic properties of plants long before this.
At the same time as the Chinese were developing the technique of acupuncture-more than 2,000 years ago-the ancient Egyptians were using balsamic materials in their religious rituals. Priests would make their own blends from spices, perfumed oils, and resins like myrrh and frankincense. These blends would then be burned during ceremonies, to both perfume the air and heighten the priests’ spiritual consciousness-probably in much the same way that hallucinogenic substances are used by shamans in native cultures.
But probably the most important, or at least the most recognized, use of aromatics by the Egyptians was in embalming-the preservation of bodies. Their methods were so effective that some of these bodies (mummies) are still in existence, and in good enough shape to be scientifically analyzed. Traces of the oils and other materials used in the embalming process have been found on the wrappings.
The Egyptians knew the healing effects of spices, and used some-like caraway and aniseed-in their cooking and baking to make the food easier to digest. They also were great consumers of garlic and onions-both of which can have antibacterial effects. There are stories that the slaves building the pyramids were given garlic cloves every day to keep them healthy.
The Greeks were probably the first to convert medicine from a superstition into a science. Hippocrates, who is considered the father of modern medicine (and whose name is still on the oath taken by new physicians), encouraged people to have a daily scented bath and massage to stay healthy. He also recommended the burning of aromatic plants on street corners to prevent the spread of the plague. In the first century, the Greek surgeon Dioscorides was probably the first person to identify the best times to harvest plants; for example, poppies are at their strongest in the morning, while jasmine is strongest at night.
The Greeks were spreading the word about the healing properties of plants. At the same time, the Romans were spreading the plants themselves-deliberately, by planting new varieties in different parts of their empire, and accidentally, as seeds from the plants fell by the roadside during their travels.
The Arab physician Avicenna is believed to have made a major contribution to the developing science of pharmacology with his invention of the steam distillation method for the extraction of essential oils in the 11th century. This method may have been used by Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century, who made her own lavender oil. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the British herbalists Gerard, Parkinson, and Culpeper wrote major treatises on the use of medicinal plants. In fact, herbs and plant oils remained popular until chemistry made possible the development of synthetic alternatives that were stronger and acted more quickly.
But the strength of these new synthetics could sometimes be harmful. In the early 20th century, a French chemist named R.M. GattefossÃ?Â© was working in his laboratory one day when he burned his hand. In his haste to ease the pain, he plunged the hand into the nearest container of liquid-which turned out to be lavender oil. The lavender oil not only relieved the pain, but it also healed the burn so quickly that GattefossÃ?Â© decided to turn his attention to the study of “aromatherapy”-a term he coined. His experiments with essential oils-mainly clove, thyme, lemon, and chamomile-were conducted on injured soldiers during World War I, and were so successful that they were continued by others, including Dr. Jean Valnet. These oils were commonly used to disinfect hospital wards and sterilize surgical instruments until World War II.
The Austrian biochemist Marguerite Maury researched the use of essential oils in skin and body care, and in cosmetics. She is probably the person most responsible for the development of aromatherapy massage.
Aromatherapy came late to the English-speaking world, but its arrival can be credited mainly to the efforts of the Englishman Robert Tisserand, whose name is still on the Tisserand brand of essential oils. And all of these individuals-GattefossÃ?Â©, Valnet, Maury, and Tisserand-have written many books and articles describing the benefits of essential oils.
Synthetics are still extremely popular in both traditional medicine and body care. But interest in natural products like essential oils continues, especially as people discover that they may be not only just as effective, but also safer. And they have a more pleasing aroma too!