| March 19, 2014

                                              The History of Aromatherapy


In the ancient world 5000-100000 BC it is believed that our very early ancestors would gather around a ritual fire breathing in the holy smoke of woods and resins. Aromatics were also burned on sacred alters to appease the wrath of the gods and to facilitate the channelling of divine knowledge. There was an ancient belief that the incense and perfume elevated the human spirit to other dimensions of awareness and had a primitive religious or mystic connotation. Phenomena associated with altered states of consciousness such as meditation, out of the body sensations feelings of euphoria, religious and sexual ecstasy, hallucinogenic drugs arise from the limbic system which is connected with the sense of smell.   However scientists in Germany have recently discovered that frankincense resin an ancient incense material contains trahydrocannabinole, a psychoactive substance which is released when the resin is burned as incense. The word ‘perfume’ is derived from the Latin per fumen meaning ‘through the smoke’ 

The ancient Egyptians are generally regarded as the true founders of Aromatherapy. Ancient Egyptians first burned incense made from aromatic woods, herbs and spices in honour of their gods. The history of aromatherapy is linked to the development of aromatic medicine and this is the foundation upon which aromatherapy is built.

 During 2650-2575 BC the process of embalming and mummification was developed by the Egyptians in their search for immortality. Pine, cedarwood, myrrh, cinnamon were used all of which have properties to retard decay and purification. This has been evidenced in recent archaeological discoveries of Egyptian mummies whose bandages still retained the aromas and when Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened in 1922 a pot of ointment with the essence of Frankincense was discovered.

Aromatics were also burned as fumigants and as mood altering incense blended into perfumes, skin massage oils, medicinal brews and healing unguents. At celebrations women wore perfumed cones on their heads which melted under the heat releasing fragrance. Most of the oils were derived from placing aromatic plant material in a vegetable oil or animal fat base leaving the mixture to infuse in the sun for several weeks. They eventually acquired a primitive knowledge of distillation. Water was poured into large clay pots over the plant material, the pot openings were covered in woollen fibres the pots were heated and the essential oil rose in the steam saturating the wool then squeezed to obtain the essence. Petals from exotic flowers were gathered into cloth bags with sticks either side which were twisted around pressing the oil out of the petals.

 The Egyptians were master perfumers and known as the best in the Middle East until the decline of the empire around 300 BC. Over the preceding millennia other civilizations such as the Assyrians, Babylonians and Hebrews learnt from their knowledge.

In ancient China herbal medicine was used in conjunction with acupuncture and massage to treat many ailments. They were involved in the quest for immortality through the practice of alchemy. The alchemist would burn Incense and douse himself in perfumes they believed it had magical forces and the plant spirits would help. They also sought spiritual transformation and perfection of the soul.

The ‘Chinese yellow emperors classic of internal medicine’ 2697BC written by Snen Nung is the oldest surviving medical book in China. It contains information on 300 plants and their medical uses. Therefore it may have preceded the Egyptians in their use and knowledge.

The earliest known  Greek physician was Asclepius, son of Apollo who practised around 1200 BC. He combined the use of herbs and surgery and was well renowned for his skill. After his death he was known as the god of healing in Greek mythology and many temples known as asclepion were built in honour of him.

The Greeks more than any other civilization were known for decorating their heads with fragrant flowers a form of psycho aromatherapy. The physician Marestheus wrote about the effects of these garlands on a physical and emotional level.

Hippocrates (460-377 BC) was the first physician to dismiss the belief that illness was caused by supernatural forces. He believed in discovering natural explanations for disease. His treatments included mild physiotherapies, daily aromatic baths and scented massage to prolong life and the internal use of herbs such as fennel, parsley, hypericum, valerian. He is said to have studied and documented over 200 herbs. He believed the entire body was a single organism and therefore should be treated as a whole. It is Hippocrates that is credited with the approach of holism.

Theophrastus of Athens (philosopher and student of Aristotle) researched plants and their effect on emotions he wrote ‘the history of plants’ as is still today known as the founder of botany.

The Greek military physician Dioscorides (40-90 AD) marched through various countries with Nero’s army in order to study herbs, their habitat, storage and their healing properties. The findings were published in ‘De Materia Medicia’also known as herbarius He is known as the father of pharmacology.

The Romans were the world’s greatest bathers especially believing in the health giving properties of spa waters. They were keen on aromatherapy massages and wealthy families would spend their days being massaged by slaves using aromatic oils.  The popularity led to trade routes enabling the Romans to import exotic oils from India and Arabia. The Romans acquired most of their knowledge from the Greeks.

The Greek physician Claudius Galen (129-199 AD) was said to be the most gifted.  he worked for the Romans treating the wounds of gladiators with medicinal herbs. He was very successful and became personal physician to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was the last of the Greek/Roman physicians before the decline of the Roman Empire. After which the use and knowledge of aromatics declined in Europe during the dark ages.

Al-Razi (865-925) is considered one of Persia’s finest physicians he made a contribution to aromatics and medicine and wrote over 237 books and papers.

The Persian physician Avicenna (980-1037 AD) is credited for reviving the use of essential oils. The Arabs perfected an advanced method of distillation which is still reflective today. In particular the oil from Red Roses became a signature for Persians. Following the recommendations of Hippocrates the Arab physicians harnessed the power of aromatic oils and floral waters to purify the air and protect themselves from disease. They disinfected their clothes with aromatics such as sandlewood,camphor and rosewater. Physiotherapeutic effects were also recognised by Avicenna he believed that plant essences fortified the body and spirit. He believed that emotions which lowered vitality and contributed to the development of disease could be combated by pleasing aromas. He wrote ‘Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb’, which means ‘The Canon of Medicine’ it contained the sum total of all existing medical knowledge. This monumental medical encyclopaedia included the Hippocratic and Galenic traditions, describing Syro-Arab and Indo-Persian practice plus notes on his own observations, becoming the definitive medical textbook, teaching guide and reference throughout Western Europe and the Islamic world for over seven hundred years.

In ancient India, essential oils and incense were used. Literature exists dating from 2000BC evidencing Indian doctors administering cinnamon, ginger, myrrh, coriander, spikenard and sandalwood. Ayurveda, the indigenous system of medicine, has used floral and other herbal essences for about four thousand years.  An individual’s qualities are harmonized when the inherent qualities of various medicinal herbs and flowers are introduced. According to Ayurveda, its principal method of treatment is through aromatic massage, herbal ingredients may be prepared as natural incense and used to prevent infections, purify one’s environmental atmosphere and energize the vital life airs of the body.

The knowledge of aromatics ‘the perfumes of Arabia’ and the process of distillation were brought back to Early Europe by the crusading knights. Some wealthy households installed their own still for capturing essential oils which were used as medicine as well as perfumes. People smothered their unwashed bodies and clothes with perfume and carried small bouquets of aromatic herbs to prevent catching infections and to mask the stench of the streets. It was also the custom to scatter lavender, thyme and chamomile on the floor these gave off scents when crushed under foot. This practice may have helped to prevent the spread of infectious illness due to the bactericidal and insecticidal properties; the scents also deterred lice and fleas.

Between 900 and 950 AD around the time of Alfred the great. The oldest surviving English manuscript of botanical medicine was written, the Anglo Saxon ‘Leech book of Bald’ it contained information on 500 plants their , usage in amulets, baths, and ingestion, and magic, shamanism and tree lore.

Around 1200 AD essential oils were being produced in Germany from herbs and spices from the Far East and Africa. The German physician Hieronymus Braunschweig wrote several books on essential oil distillation many books were written on this subject in Germany.  Germany appeared to be the centre of European aromatherapy renaissance Today they are regarded as a lead in the research in aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy continued in monasteries with monks growing herbs to infuse in oils makes tea and medicine. During the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe medicine was controlled by the Catholic Church illness and disease was considered to be a punishment from god and prayer and occasionally bleeding was offered as a treatment. During the plague in 1347 up to 40% of the population in Europe died within 3 years and up to 50% of the population of London in the first year.  Basic remedies from Anglo Saxon times were adopted by carrying sachets of lavender and amulets of thyme. Certain aromatics were used to help to prevent the spread of infection, cedar and pine were burnt to fumigate homes and streets. They did not act as a cure. Driven by desperation  the church relaxed their control of medicine and physicians tried to attempt to find a cure. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century helped to spread knowledge of aromatic medicine. A second plague occurred in 1603 benzoin, styrax, frankincense and various spice oils were burnt in homes and in the streets.

In 1597 John Gerard published ‘herbal historie of plantes’ this greatly influenced apothecaries who until then had only sold medicines prescribed by doctors. Slowly Apothecaries throughout England started to prepare compound, dispense and attend their own patients.

Nicolas Culpeper 1616-1654  introduced the concept of astrological herbalism about oils herbs blending and astrology he wrote the’ English physician’ in 1652 Other herbalists who made an impact were Joseph Miller and John Parkinson.  The essential oil industries started to expand throughout Europe.

During the great plague in 1722 in Marseille France the only people who appeared to have immunity were workers involved in aromatics and perfumery probably due to the antiseptic properties of the oils. This discovery led to the development of the famous ‘four thief’s vinegar’ the robbers would rub this over themselves before stealing from victims of the plague. The potion was made up of garlic rosemary, camphor, lavender, nutmeg, sage and cinnamon suspended in vinegar. Plague doctors wore masks with ambergris, cloves, cinnamon and other spices and sponged themselves with aromatic vinegar.

The term Aromatherapy was first used in 1937 by the French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse (1881-1950). His research was confined to the cosmetic use of the oils on the skin but soon realised they had other properties as well. Gattefosse badly burned his hand whilst working in his family’s perfumery business and plunged it into a vat of lavender which healed the wound with no infection and hardly any scaring. During the great influenza epidemic of 1918 he mixed essences containing borneol in particular sage. Treatments consisted of gargles, nose, ear and eye drops. He believed that essential oils had psychological effects and that blending oils resulted in a powerful synergy. Following his research in essential oils he published his book ‘aromatherapie les huiles essentielles hormones vegetales’ in 1937. He believed that essential oils possessed antiviral, antitoxic, antiseptic and bacterialcidal properties which have a vitalising action, healing power and therapeutic properties.

Dr Jean Valnet army surgeon is credited with contributing the most to the medical assessment and acceptance of aromatherapy. He was inspired by Gattefosse. He used essential oils such as lemon chamomile, clove and thyme to treat the battle wounds of soldiers during World War 2. He was the first person to treat psychiatric patients with essential oils. He weaned them off their chemical drugs. They were given aromatic baths and liniment rubs, ingestion of oils and interdermal injections. The treatment was reinforced with herbal remedes and a strict diet. He had great success with physical and mental symptoms often improving within days. His book ‘Aromatherapie Traitment de maladies par les essence des plantes’ was published in 1964. It was translated into English in 1980 under the title of the practice of aromatherapy. It helped to bring awareness and promote aromatherapy in this country.

Margarite Maury (1895-1968) was an Austrian born biochemist. She was inspired by a book written in 1838 by Dr Chabenes (who taught Gattefosse) called les grande possibilities par les matieres odoriferantes. This was her bible and triggered her interest in what was to be termed aromatherapy. She published a book ‘Le capital jeunesse’ in France in 1961 but it did not receive acclaim. In 1964 it was published in the UK under the title of ‘the secret of life and youth’ and was recognised as a great work. She introduced the idea of combining essential oils diluted in vegetable oil with massage. She developed a massage technique of applying the oils along the nerve centre of the spine and developed her research on the benefits of essential oils on the nervous system and their therapeutic benefits. Although her treatments were more targeted towards beauty therapy she was of the belief that aromatherapy went much deeper. She devised the ‘individual prescription’ whereby oils were chosen according to the individual physical and emotional needs and as these physical and mental states changed so the prescription changed. Her clients were mainly wealthy women who sought rejuvenation and reported improvement in their skin and in addition noted other improvements such as relief from rheumatic pain, heighten sexual pleasure, deeper sleep and a generally improved mental state. She helped to bring aromatherapy to the UK by setting up a clinic in London in the 1960’s.

Robert Tisserand researcher and author on Aromatherapy found his calling early in life. His mother had heard a talk on essential oils given by Jean Valnet in Paris this had been the inspiration for Robert. He was also inspired by Margarite Maury.  He wrote ‘The art of Aromatherapy’ published in 1977 one of the first books in English on the subject. ‘Aromatherapy for everyone’ in 1987 and co-wrote ‘Essential oil safety’ with tony Balacs in 1995. He helped to found two aromatherapy associations. He was the publisher and editor of the international journal of aromatherapy and lectures on the subject. He established the first company in the UK to market aromatherapy products. Initially he was especially interested in the calming and healing properties of lavender and set out to change people’s thoughts, associations and views of essential oils into a more modern and positive outlook. He is regarded as a modern day pioneer of aromatherapy. He now lives in the USA and works as an independent industry expert consulting worldwide to practitioners, colleges, universities and corporations.

Research has taken place looking at the role of aromatherapy and massage in palliative care. One study was conducted by Marie Curie Cancer care using a carrier oil and roman chamomile. It was found to help physical and psychological symptoms as well as improve quality of life. More and more research is revealing that aromatherapy massage is providing therapeutic benefits to patients. Since 2010 Complimentary therapies including Aromatherapy are being offered to children in Great Ormond street hospital. It is starting to be used in hospitals alongside clinical treatment. Aromatherapists are required to undertake further training before working in the field of palliative care.

The training and regulation of Aromatherapists in this country means that in order to be able to safely blend and administer essential oils you have to be a professionally qualified Aromatherapist and hold a relevant approved qualification. In order to administer essential oils internally you have to be medically qualified. It is advisable to be affiliated to a relevant organisation and adopt a code of ethics and to be aware of the most recent information and research. Regulation and registration of complementary therapists in the UK is voluntary. An aromatherapist can still practice and not have to be registered with a body as it is their personal choice.  Practising therapists must be insured and must comply with the terms so that the policy is not invalidated and both practioner and client are legally covered. 

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