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History of Aromatherapy

Its Aromatherapy Awareness Week, so I thought I'd going back to beginning and look at the evolution of aromatherapy.

The term aromatherapy wasn’t used until the 20th century, but the use of plants and oils, dates backs thousands and thousands of years, it is thought the primitive man may have used plants and herbs to help heal.

Aromatherapy has roots in herbalism, and it is believed the Chinese culture may have used plants to help support their wellbeing, such as burning them as incense to help create a relaxing environment.

The Egyptians often used the oils (essential oils) from plants and herbs to create perfume. There was often an aromatic room, in which the perfume was used as an offering to the gods. Egyptian physicians would create balms from the oils to help create healing ointments. Oils of cedarwood, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and myrrh were used by the Egyptians to embalm the dead. It is also believed Cleopatra used oils in her bath and as a perfume, to seduce Julius Cesar and Mark Antony.

The Greeks recognized the medicinal and aromatic benefits of plants. Hippocrates, the "father of medicine" would promote the virtues of aromatic bathing and scented massage to prolong life.

The Roman Empire built upon the knowledge of the Egyptians and Greeks. Discorides wrote a book called De Materia Medica that described the properties of approximately 600 plants and 1000 medicines made from them!

In eastern civilisations the most famous Arabian physician was Avicenna, who reputedly wrote over 10 books describing over 800 plants and their effects on the body. He has been credited with having perfected the art of distillation, which he used to produce pure essential oils and aromatic waters.

The Middle Ages in Europe, and the rise of Christianity in the 4th century saw the use of aromatic substances denounced as decadent. As Roman rule in Britain diminished so did the practice of bathing regularly, medieval Britons basically stopped having a bath! People smothered their unwashed bodies and clothes with perfume and carried pomanders or little bouquets of aromatic herbs to prevent catching infectious illness and to mask the stench of the dirty streets. It was also the custom to throw sweet smelling plants such as lavender, thyme, chamomile, and citronella on the floor, which when crushed under foot would give off a scent.

During the 14th century, the Black Death killed millions of people. Herbal preparations were used extensively to help fight this terrible killer. It is believed that some perfumers may have avoided the plague by their constant contact with the natural aromatics.

Early in the 20th century a French chemist and scholar, Dr R M Gattefosse, rekindled the interest in aromatherapy - a term he coined and about which he wrote several books. During his research, he is said to have burned his hand whilst working in the laboratory, he plunged it into the nearest bowl, which contained oil of lavender he was astonished at how quickly the pain ceased and the skin healed. René-Maurice Gattefossé is known as the Father of aromatherapy.

If Dr R M Gattefosse is known as the father of aromatherapy, then Madame Marguerite Maury, should perhaps be known as the mother of aromatherapy. Madame M laid down the fundamental principles of the aromatherapy of today. She emphasised the importance of applying the essential oils externally, diluted in vegetable oil, in combination with massage. She practiced and taught aromatherapy until her death in 1968 and pioneered many clinics including here in Britain.

Aromatherapy today has become very popular. However essential oils need to be better understood by the public and medical practitioners. It is important that we continue to research the benefits of essential oils and practice safe use of oils.

As a modern aromatherapist and someone who adores this beautiful holistic practice, my aim is to continue to learn, but also work on the principles of aromatherapy based on thousands and thousand years of the knowledge, learnt from earlier civilisations.


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