A Brief History of Aromatherapy

As mentioned earlier; Aromatherapy is a holistic approach using essential oils extracted from organic material (plants, flowers, fruits, herbs, woods and spices) to enhance the body’s ability to maintain or improve the physical and mental well-being of an individual. 

While using the entire plants for medicinal purposes dates back thousands of years, the practice of using essential oils didn’t come about till much later.  The Hindus (1700 BC), Egyptians (1500 BC) and Chinese (1600 BC) burned incense as part of their cultures.

In India, a system that focuses on balancing the body, otherwise known as Ayurvedic medicine, dates back 5000 years and incorporated the use of essential oils, like: sandalwood, myrrh, coriander, ginger and cinnamon; with massage.

The Egyptians – who were the first to perfect the art of aromatherapy and were responsible for the origin of perfume – used essential oils, incense and perfume not only for cosmetics, medicine and massage, but also for religious and ceremonial (burning incense and aromatic wood) purposes such as mummification (the practice of embalming to preserve the body for the next world).   Incense was used extensively to call upon ancestral spirits, purify the air and drive away evil spirits.  The Egyptians used rose, jasmine (an absolute), frankincense and myrrh in balsams, perfumed oils, scented barks, resins, spices and aromatic vinegars in everyday life. Oils and pastes from plants were transformed into pills, powders, suppositories, medicinal cakes and ointments.

The Chinese are credited with one of the earliest known written instructions for the use of herbs for medicinal purposes. The book entitled ‘The Great Herbal’ by Shen Nung was written in 2800 BC and lists 350 plants of which many are still used today.  The Chinese burned incense around 1600 BC and brought the practice to the Japanese in the 6th century.

The Greeks and Romans are known to have travelled to Egypt and returned with incense, spices and knowledge of essential oils and fragrances.  The Greeks learned a great deal from the Egyptians and recognized the medicinal and aromatic benefits of plants. They were instrumental in furthering the study of plant medicine by documenting, classifying and indexing the information they learned from the Egyptians.

The wealthy Romans enjoyed a lavish lifestyle.  It was customary for them to bathe daily – sometimes multiple times – and have their slaves massage aromatic oils on to them.  They made extensive use of perfumes, scented oils and solid perfumed ointments for their heads, bodies, clothes and beds. The Romans collected sage, thyme, rosemary, parsley and fennel that eventually made its way to Britain and other countries, where they became naturalized.

Much of our knowledge of medicinal herbs can be traced back to prominent physicians and scientists:

·        A first century (AD) Greek physician in the Roman army, named Pedanius Dioscorides wrote a book titled De Materia Medica or ‘On Medical Material’ in 50 AD listing in detail the properties of some 500 plants. His book was used as a medical reference for over a thousand years following his death and can be credited with instilling the knowledge of medical herbs we have today.

·        Claudius Galenus, also a physician, was a well-respected scientist and pharmacist who not only authored over 500 books and was credited with producing the first cold cream, but was the personal physician to the emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius. Galenus, who had his own pharmacy, meticulously recorded countless remedies made from vegetable and animal ingredients detailing the precise quantity of each remedy.  It was said that Galenus, who had the responsibility of taking care of gladiators, never lost a gladiator while in his care!

·        In Arabia, a physician by the name of Avicenna, also wrote many books including The Canon of Medicine which included the properties of over 800 plants and how they affect the body.  Like De Materia Medica, The Canon of Medicine was used in medical schools for over 500 years until as late as 1650 AD (though it was reprinted in New York in 1973).  In addition to over the 100 books that Avicenna wrote, he also discovered and perfected the art of distillation extraction through experimentation with roses. At this time, distillation focused on extracting aromatic floral waters and not essential oils. However, in the 11th century, Avicenna invented a coiled pipe that allowed the plant vapor and steam to cool down more efficiently than the straight cooling pipe that the distillers of the time were using, and the distillation of essential oils began.

With the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, the use of aromatics fell out of favour as it was thought to be associated with pagan worship and therefore immoral.  It would take many years before aromatics were once again accepted.          

In the 14th century, millions of people died as a result of the plague (Black Death). Herbal preparations and fumigation of frankincense, lavender, sulfur, hops and pepper were used to help ease suffering and stop the spread of the infection. Lockets containing aromatics were worn by many people for their antiseptic properties and it is believed that the workers in constant contact with the herbs and essential oils – perfumery workers and glove makers – were able to avoid the plague altogether.

By the 15th century a growth in the number of books containing herbal oils and instructions on how to use them rose. Paracelcus, a philosopher, physician and botanist continued to improve the art of distillation and added many more essential oils.  As more essential oils were added, the oils began to be more widely used as perfumes. By the 16th century, the perfume industry was one of the most important industries in Europe.

As more books on herbs and distillation were being produced, the popularity of essential oils began to flourish and people were able to purchase cedarwood, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, rosemary, sage and rose from dispensaries (Apothecary).  By this time, the use of essential oils became so widespread that the elite in England and Europe had still rooms dedicated to producing floral waters and oils for household and medicinal purposes.

As understanding of helping to heal illness and injury with herbals, aromatic and essential oils expanded from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the pharmaceutical industries’ production of synthetic medicine was introduced and the natural approach to healing became antiquated for most developed countries, with the exception of China. However; a large part of the population continued to use the same natural remedies that were used thousands of years ago, as past down from generations. Today, while more consumers are searching for healthier ways to maintain their homes and live healthier lifestyles, essential oils are once again in the forefront.