Aromatherapy history dates back a long time ago and is both an art and a science. It has been used for psychological and physical benefits for thousands of years. Aromatherapy is defined as the use of aromatic compounds derived from plants. These are compounds that, in nature, would evaporate freely, travel through the air, and be breathed and smelled by humans and animals. Whether the aromatic compounds are in the form of essential oils or whole plant extracts, they retain a lot of the plants’ beneficial elements and this is why aromatherapy is such a common and effective wellness practice!
There is no clear indication of where in the world aromatherapy originated, but it has been used in many different cultures throughout history. The Egyptians developed pots to distill essential oils from plants. They used these oils in their embalming processes, because of both their pleasant smell and their antibacterial properties.
Aromatherapy was also used often in Chinese medicine and the Indian Ayurvedic practices. One notable example is chaulmoogra oil, which was a common pre-modern treatment for leprosy. It is also thought that these cultures were the first to use essential oils for mood enhancement.
The Greeks inherited the use of aromatherapy from the Egyptians. Hippocrates, who is considered the “father of medicine”, believed in holistic healing, and used aromatherapy massage in his treatments. This practice was passed on to the Romans, who also put a lot of stock in hygiene and fragrance as elements of personal health.
Around the same time, the Arabian Empire was growing, and drawing influence from the Chinese and Indian aromatherapy practices. An Alchemist named Avicenna came up with the refrigerated coil component of distillation and is thus credited with perfecting the distillation process for essential oils. This process, although basic, is very similar to the one we still use today.
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The period following the fall of the Roman Empire was known as the Dark Ages. During this time aromatics were used mostly to get rid of foul body odor in an alternative to bathing, because the church regarded bathing as a sinful practice. After the Dark Ages came to the Renaissance, during which the holistic healing method became trendy again.
Plants continued to be used medicinally throughout the Middle Ages. Two published works that provide evidence for this are The Herball (also known as The General Historie of Plantes), the first published plant catalog written in 1597 by John Gerard, and The English Physician, a 1652 book by Nicholas Culpeper which described the use of essential oils and plants as remedies.
20th Century and Modern Times
The name “aromatherapy” was created by a French chemist, Rene-Marice Gattefosse, in 1937. He suffered a burn in 1910 and discovered that lavender oil was a helpful remedy. Jean Valnet, a French surgeon, also used essential oils during World War II to help treat injured soldiers.
In the 1950’s, an Austrian biochemist named Marguerite Maury became interested in aromatherapy and used vegetable carrier oils to dilute essential oils for topical use in massages. She was also the first person to prescribe custom blends of essential oils that met the individual health needs of her massage clients.
In 1977, the first aromatherapy book in English, The Art of Aromatherapy, was written by Robert Tisserand. This book became the basis for many other works on aromatherapy. Since the late 1970s, holistic health has become a popular and respected form of medical practice. Aromatherapy and its proven health benefits have arguably been a driving force behind this trend.
The above are just a few milestones in the history of aromatherapy. They should give you an idea of the impact essential oils have had across the world and throughout history.