Sunday 17 May 2009

History Of Aromatherapy

It is thought that the Chinese were the first civilization to
use aromatic plants for health related reasons, such as burning
incense for harmony. However it was the Egyptians who invented
the first distillation techniques, thus allowing the extraction
of essential oils. Their distillation methods were crude, but
allowed them to use the oils of cedarwood, clove, cinnamon,
nutmeg and myrrh to embalm their dead. Tombs opened by
archaeologists in the early twentieth century revealed traces of
herbs and a faint herbal scent.

The Egyptians also used essential oils and infused oils for
spiritual, medicinal and cosmetic purposes. They started
creating aromatic infusions over 5,000 years ago. Many believe
they developed the term perfume, originating from the Latin `per
fumum', meaning through the smoke. Perfumery was closely linked
to ancient Greek religion, and each deity was allotted a

Aromatic scents were the focus of Greek aromatherapy, used
medically, in food preservation, cosmetics, cooking as well as
religion. Aromatherapeutic ideas also played a part in the
design and layout of towns, with large spaces allocated to the
burning of herbs to keep the air germ free.

Ancient Egyptian rulers imported exotic scents from countries
they had conquered as a symbol of their power, both economically
and politically.

The Greeks learnt a lot from the Egyptians. After visiting the
Nile Valley in 500 B.C. they set up a medical school on the
Island of Cos, of which the most famous graduate was
Hippocrates, `the father of medicine'. He recommended a daily
bath and massage with essential oils for a healthy life.

The Romans furthered the knowledge they obtained from the
Egyptians and Greeks. Discordes wrote a treatus called De
Materia Medica, which referenced more than 500 medicinal plants.
Roman herbalist Galen was influenced by this treatus and wrote
what became the world's medical reference for over 1,500 years.

The Romans really took the use of aromatic scents to a new
level. Spice filled pipes perfumed Nero's guests in his palace,
perfumed cups were very popular, and there were fragrant
watering spots around the city. Aromatic perfumes remained
popular when the focus of learning moved from Rome to
Constantinople (now known as Istanbul).

The Arabs were the first to distil alcohol from fermented
sugar. This discovery created a solvent other than oils and
waxes for infusions, leading to popular luxuries such as floral
waters. With this distillation the scents and powerful
therapeutic abilities of essential oils were brought to light
and explored.

Distilling Essential Oils

Distillation techniques were furthered in the eleventh century
by a Persian physician, Avicenna who invented a coiled pipe
allowing more efficient and effective cooling of plant vapour
and steam. This more effective technique created more focus on
essential oils and their benefits.

In the thirteenth century the pharmaceutical industry commenced
encouraging great distillation of essential oils. This created a
sound basis of knowledge regarding the use of essential oils for
the Black Death of the fourteenth century, which killed 80
million people across Europe. Aromatherapy was used to allieve
the situation. Aromatic herbs and scented candles were burned to
combat the stench and help disinfect the air. It is thought that
some perfumers avoided the plague due to their constant contact
with the natural aromatics.

Aromatic herbs were similarly used during the Bubonic Plague in
the sixteenth century when doctors wore big hats with huge beaks
filled with aromatic herbs to disinfect the air. At this stage a
concrete link between aromatics and health was established, as
perfumed air was recognized as antiseptic as well as pleasant.
By 1700, essential oils were used in mainstream medicine.
However, the development of chemistry at this time weakened the
use of essential oils for medicinal purposes.

Popular Aromatherapy Uses

It wasn't until the beginning of the twentieth century that
essential oils and aromatics regained their popularity. A French
chemist called Renee Maurice Gattefosse studied essential oils
for their aromatic use. However, his focus changed to their
medicinal properties after an accident at work. He badly burnt
his arm and in reflex plunged it into the closest liquid which
happened to be lavender essential oil. His arm healed very
quickly and did not scar, which prompted his study of the
medicinal uses of essential oils. Gattefosse coined the term
`aromatherapy' in 1928, and in 1937 he wrote a book called
`Gattefosse's Aromatherapy', which is still in print and widely

In the late 1950's Madam Marguerite Maury studied how essential
oils could be used to penetrate the skin for health and beauty
reasons. She developed massage methods that are still used by
aromatherapists today. In her book `The Secret of Life and
Youth' she develops the concept of individual prescription, a
blend specific to the individual patient.
Dr Jean Valnet, a French doctor who treated soldiers in World
War Two with essential oils, documented the antimicrobial action
of oils in his 1964 book `The Practice of Aromatherapy'. As a
result of his work, France developed a successful medical
aromatherapy, in which essential oils are used by the medical

For the majority of the past century, aromatherapy has been
restricted to the beauty industry and largely unaccepted in the
medical profession. It is a combination of Maury's development
of the concept of individual prescription and the success of
medical aromatherapy in France that has lead to a more medical
approach and acceptance of aromatherapy in Britain and the
United States over the past few years. Aromatherapy has now
split into two key areas; beauty and medical, both of which are
equally important and are increasingly being recognized as areas
and techniques which complement each other.

About The Author: Duncan Bain is the founder and owner of
Natural Touch Aromatherapy specialising in the
supply of high quality pure
essential oils, carrier oils, hydrolats and a wide range of
Aromatherapy products. Here he gives us an insight into the

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