Most of the credit for the way we use essential oils today goes to Rene-Maurice Gattefosse (1881-1950), who studied the medicinal properties of essential oils for many years whilst working in his family perfumery business. He was the first person to use the word 'aromatherapie' for massage with essential oils diluted in carrier oil. Gattefosse used essential oils on the wounds of soldiers during WW1, and discovered the wonderful healing power of lavender in treating burns. He was also the first person to realise that essential oils are absorbed into the blood stream through massaging them into the skin. Gattefosse was a prolific writer and his passion for researching essential oils eventually led in 1937 to the publication of his ground breaking book: Aromatherapie: Les Huiles Essentielles Hormones Vegetales.
Dr Jean Valnet picked up where Gattefosse left off. Working as a surgical assistant in WW2, he used Chamomile, Clove, Lemon, and Thyme essential oils to treat gangrene and battle wounds. Thereafter Valnet used essential oils as a doctor, to help treat patients, and was the first person ever to use them to treat psychiatric conditions. He used basil to help regulate the menstrual cycle, and cypress for coughs and bronchitis. In France cough sweets were once made from crushed cypress cones. Valnet's inspired book, Aromatherapie: Traitment des Maladies par les Essences de Plantes, was published in 1964, and in 1980 translated into English and released under the new title, The Practice of Aromatherapy.
The person who brought aromatherapy to Britain was Madame Marguerite Maury (1895-1968). She was a biochemist born in Austria, who married a French doctor and homeopath. She became fascinated by the use of essential oils for both medical and cosmetic purposes, and was a pioneer of aromatherapy in France. In the late 1950s Maury came to England to give a series of lectures on massage techniques. She then opened a clinic in London and taught aromatherapy to other therapists. Her influential book, The Secret of Life and Youth, was published in 1964. After Maury's death her work continued through her protégé, Daniele Ryman, who is now herself considered an authority on aromatherapy.
The work of Valnet and Gattefosse inspired Englishman Robert Tisserand, who in 1977 wrote the first aromatherapy book in English, The Art of Aromatherapy, a book that became the inspiration and reference for virtually every author on the subject for almost two decades.
So finally we are unfolding the secrets of ancient Egyptian knowledge, revealing aromatherapy to be one of the most therapeutic ways of combating the detrimental effects of psychological and physiological stress, restoring tranquillity and balance into the lives of everyone.
The first key event in the ancient history of Aromatherapy was the development of the process of embalming and mummification by the Egyptians during the 3rd Dynasty (2650 - 2575 BC). Frankincense, Myrrh, Galbanum, Cinnamon, Cedarwood, Juniper Berry, and Spikenard were all used to preserve the bodies of Egyptian royalty in preparation for the afterlife. During those early trading years demand outstripped supply of materials such as Frankincense and Myrrh, and consequently they had a value equal to that of gems and precious metals.
During the period between the 18th and the 25th Dynasty (1539-657 BC), the Egyptians continued to develop their use of aromatics in incense, medicine, cosmetics, and perfumery, and the Egyptian perfumery industry was celebrated as the finest in the Middle East and beyond. So great was their reputation, that when Julius Caesar returned home with Cleopatra after conquering Egypt around 48 BC, perfume bottles were tossed into the crowd to demonstrate his total domination.
As the Egyptian empire crumbled into decline around 300 BC, Europe took over where the Egyptians had left off, having absorbed a lot of the knowledge/skills. New methods steadily evolved into a system of healing that had more scientific basis. Hippocrates (circa 460-377 BC) was the first physician to dismiss the Egyptian belief that illness was caused by supernatural forces. He believed that a doctor should observe a patient carefully, and make a diagnosis only after considering all the symptoms. His treatments would include mild physiotherapy, baths, massage with infusions, and the internal use of herbs such as Fennel, Parsley, Hypericum, or Valerian. Hippocrates believed that surgery should only be used as a last resort, and he was the first to regard the human body as a whole organism, at its healthiest when balanced.
The use of aromatics, herbs, and perfumes became more popular in Greece after Alexander's invasion of Egypt in the 3rd Century BC. Theophrastus of Athens, a student of Aristotle, did an extensive study of plants and even how scents affected emotions. He wrote several books on botany, including The History of Plants, which became the most important botanical reference book for several hundred years. He is often referred to as the Founder of Botany. The next great inspiration was the Greek military physician Dioscorides (40-90 AD), who served in Nero's army. He marched with Roman armies far and wide to study herbs, and recorded everything he discovered. He described the plant's habitat, how it should be prepared and stored, and what its healing properties were. The results were a 5-volume epic called De Materia Medica, also known as Herbarius. This magnificent work was the first comprehensive pharmacopoeia ever, and earned Dioscorides the accolade Father of Pharmacology.
Perhaps the most brilliant of Greek physicians at this time was Claudius Galen, who lived from 129-199 AD and studied medicine from the age of 17. He began his career aged 28 treating gladiator wounds with medicinal herbs, during which time it is said that not a single gladiator died of his wounds. He quickly rose to become the personal physician to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen was the last of the Greco-Roman physicians and within 100 years of his death the Roman Empire started to decline, plunging Europe into dark times where much of their medical knowledge was discarded and progress ceased for hundreds of years. It was now the turn of another culture to carry the torch of aromatic medicine forward.
It was the Persians who became the torch-bearers. Firstly we have Al-Razi (865 - 925 AD), considered one of Persia's finest physicians, whose most influential work was a medical encyclopedia of some 25 books. Next came Ibn Sina (980 - 1037). At 16 he began studying medicine and by the time he was 20 had been appointed a court physician, earning the title 'Prince of Physicians'. His 14 volume epic, The Canon of Medicine was over one million words long and contained the sum total of all existing medical knowledge. It became the definitive medical textbook through Western Europe and the Islamic world for over 700 years.
What was happening in the Anglo-Saxon World?
The oldest surviving English manuscript of botanical medicine is the Saxon Leech Book of Bald, which was written from 900-950 by Bald, and contained a mixture of herbalism, magic, shamanism, and tree lore, and describes 500 plants, their properties, and how they can be used in amulets, baths, or internally. Crusaders returned from the Holy Wars with rose water, perfumes, aromatics, and remedies hitherto unheard of. Fragrant plants increased in popularity, and those who could afford it decorated their homes with aromatic herb garlands and washed their hands in rose water. The range and availability of aromatic medicines continued to increase, however the knowledge of Eastern physicians had not yet reached our shores.
During the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe medicine was almost entirely governed by the Catholic Church, who considered illness and disease to be a punishment from God, to be treated using prayer and perhaps the odd blood-letting session. In 1597 John Gerard published Herball, or General Historie of Plantes, which is now considered a classic. The very first essential oils such as Juniper, Lavender, Rosemary, and Sage had arrived in Britain around this time, although he did not mention them. As a result of Gerard's book apothecaries began to prepare and make their own medicines, however unfortunately this didn't happen quickly enough to help with the second visitation of the Black Death in 1603. It was reported that the only people not to succumb to the plague were workers involved in aromatics and perfumery, no doubt because of the highly antiseptic properties of essential oils.
Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) remains one of the most influential herbalists of our time. After rebelling against expectations that he become a Minister, and consequently cutting short his studies at Cambridge University, he became an apprentice to Francis Drake, an apothecary who owned a shop in Threadneedle Street, Bishopsgate. He had studied De Materia Medica in great detail, and as part of his training was led on excursions to identify and collect medicinal herbs, contributing to enlarging Gerard's Herball. Such was the knowledge he had built up that he was able to carry on the business when his employer died. As a result of tragedy in his own life Culpeper became highly motivated to help the suffering of others. He never denied anyone treatment, and as a result often saw 40 patients a day with great sensitivity to their needs. Culpeper's deepest desire was to make herbal medicine available to everyone, especially the poor who couldn't afford to see a physician, so in 1649 he published a translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis in English, making it accessible to apothecaries and the public alike. This did not go down well with the Royal College of Physicians, who would rather that their patients didn't understand what they were prescribing. On September 5th 1653 Culpeper completed his herbal The English Physitian, and it is this work that has had an enduring impact through the centuries, intermixing descriptions of herbs, oils, and their uses with the effect of astrology on plants. Other notable herbalists such as Joseph Miller and John Parkinson also left a rich botanical legacy, paving the way for later generations. Essential oil production throughout Europe flourished, providing oils for the pharmaceutical, flavour, and perfumery industries.