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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Evolution and History of Aromatherapy Essential Oils - A Brief Overview - Health

Aromatherapy is derived from two words, Aroma - meaning fragrance or smell and Therapy - meaning treatment. The term Aromatherapy is relatively new, derived from the work of Ren-Maurice Gattefoss in the early part of the twentieth century. 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 today.

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.


Aromatic herbs and massage were used in China long before the birth of the Christ. Along the Yellow River 5000 years ago the Chinese were using mugwort leaves and calamus roots for hygiene purposes. Emperor Shen Nung's medical text Herbal dates back to about 2700 BC and it contains details on 365 plants. Emperor Huang Ti is credited with The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine (2650 BC). In his work aromatic medicines and massage are referred to on several occasions. The book also forms much of the basis for acupuncture.


In India plants and plant extracts were being employed from at least 3000 B.C. The oldest form of Indian medicine is known as 'Ayurvedic' and uses many different massage techniques, pressure points and also essential oils. One of the oldest known Indian books on plants called Vedas mentions basil, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, myrrh and sandalwood.


The ancient Greeks played a very important part in aromatic medicine, developing the knowledge acquired from the Egyptians.

The most renowned Greek is, of course, Hippocrates (460-370 BC) who became known as the 'Father of Medicine'. He adopted a holistic approach and advocated daily aromatic baths and massage. He wrote in his Aphorisms that 'aromatic baths are useful in the treatment of female disorders'.

Asclepiades (200 BC), a Greek physician, believed in gentle therapies such as bathing, massage, music, perfume and wine. He was opposed to the use of purgatives and emetics which were so popular at that time.


Pedacius Dioscorides of Anazarba wrote a five-volume book known as De Materia Medica in the first century AD. One of the volumes is full of information regarding the uses of plants and aromatics. Cypress, juniper, marjoram and myrrh are mentioned among the 500 plants described in this study. He mentions Kyphi claiming that it is calming and helps to relieve asthma attacks. Other formulae include 'Amarakinon' to treat haemorrhoids and menstrual difficulties, 'Susinon' to treat fluid retention and 'Nardinon muron' for coughs and colds. A great deal of our present knowledge of medicinal herbs comes from Dioscorides.

The Romans adored perfumes and aromatic oils and used them for massage and scenting their hair and clothing. In Rome the hetairi or prostitutes used scent lavishly. Galen, the physician to the gladiators, prepared ointments and he also produced a 'cold cream'.


Born in Persia, the physician and scholar Avicenna (AD 980-1037), is credited with the invention of distillation. There was already a crude type of distillation in operation but Avicenna refined it by extending the length of the cooling pipe and forming it into a coil. This enabled the condensation of steam and vaporised essence to be far more efficient. Rose water made from rosa centifolia becomes popular. The Persians exported it to China and India and it was used for medicinal and culinary purposes. Perfumes were formulated using roses, lilies, narcissi and violets.

The Crusaders, during the Holy Wars, brought back knowledge of herbal medicines and perfumes, handed down from the Romans.


Religious orders cultivated their own aromatic plants - in the twelfth century the Germman Abbess, Hildegarde, was well known for growing Lavender.

In the Middle Ages lavender and other herbs made up into bouquets were used as protection against plagues. Frankincense and Pine were burned in the streets in the fourteenth century. Basil, chamomile, lavender, melissa and thyme were strewn on the ground and chamomile lawns became popular. Perfumes were used likely in England as people hardly ever washed themselves, so the perfumes masked unpleasant natural body odours.


Many English herbalists emerged during the seventeenth century - the most renowned herbalists include John Parkinson, John Gerarde and Nicholas Culpepper. In 1653 Culpepper wrote his famous Complete Herbal. The plague wreaked havoc once more and aromatic herbs were popular. The perfumers enjoyed an immunity to the plague because they were surrounded by essential oils. Essential oils were being used in mainstream medicine for a host of internal and external diseases.

During the nineteenth century practically all herbalists and some doctors were using essential oils. Potions were mixed up in apothecaries - each had its own still.

Scientists of the nineteenth century identified some of the chemical constituents of oils and gave them names such as 'geraniol' and 'citronellol'. Unfortunately this led to the development of synthetic copies of the main constituents of oils. The use of herbs and essential oils declined greatly as the drug companies started to flourish. Synthetic drugs, sadly, can produce numerous side effects and can be toxic and harmful.


The birth of modern aromatherapy can be attributed to the French chemist Ren-Maurice Gattefoss. It was Gattefoss who coined the word 'aromatherapy' in 1937 with the publication of his book Aromatherapi. It is said that after burning his hand in an experiment, he plunged it into the nearest liquid which happened to contain the lavender oil. He used essential oils on the wound of soldiers who were injured during the First World War.

French doctor Jean Valnet, an army surgeon who had been influenced by the work of Gattefosse, made an enormous impact on the aromatherapy world with the publication of his book Aromatherapi in 1964. His book regarded is regarded as the aromatherapist's bible. He had used essential oils treating war wounds and after the war he continued to use essential oils.

Madame Marguerite Maury (1895-1964) introduced aromatherapy into Britain in the late 1950s. She applied the essential oils, diluted in a carrier oil, using massage techniques.

Nowadays aromatherapy is becoming an increasingly popular therapy for a wide range of ailments. It is practised by the professional qualified clinical aromatherapists in hospitals, clinics, hospices and surgeries. The demand for aromatherapy in growing rapidly.

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