Aromatherapy is derived from two words. Aroma- meaning fragrance or smell and
Therapy- meaning treatment. Aromatherapy was used by the most ancient
civilizations and is reputed to be at least 6000 years old. It is widely thought
that Aromatherapy began in Egypt. A medical papyri considered to date back to
around 1555 BC contains remedies for all types of illnesses and the methods of
application are similar to the ones used in Aromatherapy and Herbal medicine
The Egyptians used a method known as infusion ( this process is described
later on ) to extract the oils from aromatic plants and incense was probably one
of the earliest ways of using aromatics. Frankincense was burned at sun rise as
an offering to the sun god, Ra and myrrh was offered to the moon. The Egyptians
were experts at embalming using aromatics to help preserve flesh. The Egyptians
used to be massaged with fragrant oils after bathing .
The Greeks continued the use of aromatic oils and used them medicinally and
cosmetically. A Greek physician, Pedacius Dioscorides, wrote a book about herbal
medicine and for at least 1200 years as the Western world's standard medical
reference. Many of the remedies he mentions are still in use today in
The Romans took much of their medical knowledge from the Greeks and went on
to use and improve the ability of aromatics with Rome becoming the bathing
capital of the world. After bathing they would be oiled and massaged. The Romans
started to import new aromatic products from East India and Arabia through the
opening up of trade routes.
During the crusades the knowledge of aromatic oils and perfumes spread to the
Far East and Arabia and it was a physician called Avicenna who lived from A.D
980 to A.D. 1037 that is understood to have first used the process known as
distillation to distil essence of rose ,although it probably took many years to
perfect the process. (This process will be described later). The Arabs also
discovered how to distil alcohol around the same time making it possible to
produce perfumes without a heavy oily base.
There is a strong possibility that the ancient Chinese civilizations were
using some form of aromatics at the same time as the Egyptians. Shen Nung's
Herbal book is the oldest surviving medical book in China which is dated about
2700 B.C. and contains information on over 300 plants. The Chinese used aromatic
herbs and burned aromatic woods and incense to show respect to God.
Traditional Indian medicine known as ayurveda has been practised for more
than 3000 years and it incorporates aromatic massage as one of its main aspects.
The invasions of South America by the conquistadores brought about the
discovery of more medicinal plants and aromatic oils as the Aztecs were well
known for their plant remedies and the Spanish were amazed at the wealth of
medicinal plants found in Montezuma's botanical gardens.
The North American Indians also used aromatic oils and produced their own
It wasn't until the 19th century that scientists in Europe and Great Britain
began researching the effects of essential oils on bacteria in humans.
A French chemist , Rene Maurice Gattefosse, began his research into the
healing powers of essential oils after burning his hand in his laboratory and
immersing in it in lavender oil and being impressed by how quickly the burn
healed. In 1937 he published a book about the anti-microbial effects of the oils
and coined the word Aromatherapy. He went on to set up a business producing oils
for use in fragrances and cosmetics. Around the same time another Frenchman,
Albert Couvreur, published a book on the medicinal uses of essential oils.
A French medical doctor , Jean Valnet, discovered Gattefosse's research and
began experimenting with essential oils. Around the same time, Margaret Maury, a
French biochemist developed a unique method of applying these oils to the skin
with massage. Micheline Arcier, now living in London, studied and worked with
Maury and Valnet and their combined techniques created a form of Aromatherapy
now used all over the world.
Essential oils are very expensive to produce, some more so than others, due
to the labour intensive process and the quantity of the plant required to
produce the oil, Approximately 400kg of thyme would produce 1kg of essential
oil, 1000kg of rose petals to make 1kg of oil , 6 tones of orange blossom to
produce 1kg of neroli , and 4 million jasmine flowers to produce 1kg of jasmine