For centuries, people have used flowers, herbs, and roots to care for their health, their beauty, and their spirituality. The term aromatherapy evolved in the 20th century, but civilizations have been enjoying its benefits in one form or another since prehistoric times. In the earliest of times, it was the simple act of crushing plant matter. Evidence shows that cave dwellers used juniper berries as a basic antiseptic and as a food flavoring. They undoubtedly enjoyed the subtle aromatherapy value of plants through the burning of leaves and woods as well as through the sense of touch. Anyone who has ever touched a rosemary plant or peeled an orange has experienced aromatherapy.
Ancient Chinese cultures used and explored the benefits of plants and herbs. Shen Nung's classic herbal book (Shen-nung pen ts'ao ching, translation: Divine Husbandman's Materia Medica) dates back to 2,700 BC and includes 365 medicines derived from minerals, plants, and animals. Considered the father of Chinese agriculture, this legendary emperor reportedly tasted hundreds of herbs to test their medicinal value. Citrus fruit originated in China and one ancient text mentions the creation of a crude form of essential oil by means of burning the rinds in a vessel of water and collecting the floating “oils”. The Chinese also used incense and burning woods in religious ceremonies.
Around the same time as the Chinese were exploring plants, the people of India were using aromatic plants as a vital part of their Ayurvedic medicinal system as well as for incense and spiritual practice.
The Egyptians became experts in the exotic use of aromatics. The most commonly known use is the embalming process. Cedar, sandalwood, cassia, frankincense, and myrrh, among other essential oils were blended with beeswax for that process. Most oils found in Egyptian tombs indicate they were more likely infused oils versus the pure essential oil we know today.
The science of aromatics was also for the living. These ancient Egyptians created cosmetics, perfumes and incense from fragrant plants and resins. Evidence shows that plants such as rosemary, marjoram, jasmine, chamomile, frankincense, juniper, and myrrh were in use. Most perfumes were created by blending the plant matter in oils and fats. The Egyptians became such experts in the field of aromatic cosmetics that it prompted spice trading with other countries in an effort to expand their ingredients and resources.
Pedanius Dioscorides (circa 40—90 AD) was a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist, and the author of De Materia Medica, a 5-volume encyclopedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal substances. The text was widely read for more than 1,500 years. Dioscorides began tinkering with the distilling process, but his focus was on creating floral waters, not extracting the oils from the plants.
The Persian-born physician Avicenna (980-1037 AD) is considered the inventor of distillation. Avicenna introduced the coiled cooling pipe (straight pipes were used prior to this) that allowed the condensation of steam to take place so that one could collect the evaporated oils. His efforts paved the way for the extraction of plant oils like those that we use today.
Fast forward to the 14th century. By this time, the distillation of essential oils had been around for close to two hundred years and had been highly used in pharmaceuticals for nearly a hundred years. When the Plague (a.k.a. Black Death) swept through Europe, these herbal concoctions and oils did little to help. Rumors suggest that alchemists and perfumists who worked with aromatic oils on a consistent basis avoided the disease but there is no documentation to back this up.
By the time the 16th century rolled around, perfumery had become a form of creative expression – a genuine art form. France became the capital of perfumery and its popularity demanded the farming of flowers and other precious plants. In addition, apothecary shops had become commonplace.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the perfume industry became a prosperous business across all of Europe.
The term 'aromatherapie' was coined by a French chemist named René-Maurice Gattefossé (1881-1950) who studied the medicinal properties of essential oils for many years while working in his family’s perfume business. Many aromatherapy and essential oil books report that he discovered the healing properties of lavender when a bad laboratory burn caused him to dip his arm into a vat of lavender oil. However, many feel this story has been blown out of proportion and that he was already studying the medicinal aspects of the oils when, after a burn, he decided to apply lavender oil with good results.
In the 1950’s Austrian born cosmetologist Marguerite Maury introduced the idea of combining essential oils with massage and had developed some of her own massage techniques. She lectured on the concept of maintaining youth by caring and nurturing all aspects of ourselves – mind, body, and spirit. She opened aromatherapy clinics in Switzerland, England, and France, which focused mainly on the cosmetics side of essential oils, even though her passion was the therapeutic benefits of aromatherapy. Her book The Secret of Life and Youth was released in Britain in 1964 (released three years earlier under the title Le Capital Jeunesse).
In 1977, a British aromatherapist named Robert Tisserand wrote, The Art of Aromatherapy, the first book on aromatherapy that was written in English. It was later also published in Bulgarian, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish.
Although it has been practiced for thousands of years, Aromatherapy has only recently become popular in the Western culture. As more people learn about natural products and turn to a holistic lifestyle, they acknowledge the importance of combining the mind, body and spirit to achieve health and wellness. To this day, research is still performed to uncover all the benefits of essential oils and aromatherapy.