Archaeological discoveries of ancient texts, stone engravings & papyri has strongly established that aromatic plant materials had important use in treatment & overall wellbeing in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia & India. Most probably, from Egypt it was spread to Greece & Rome. Clear mention of using the smell of herbs like Basil can be found in the Dioscorides’ herbal De Materia Medica, the oldest surviving Greek literature on herbs, dating back to the 1st Century AD.
Discovery of clay distillation unit from Takshashila (currently near Rawalpindi, Pakistan) stand as a proof that ancient people had the knowledge of extracting aromatic substances. Ibn Sena, more commonly known by his Latinised name Avicenna, a renowned physician & scientist of his time, is traditionally attributed for invention of refrigerating coils for condensing aromatic vapours for producing ‘essence’. These ‘essences’ are now known as essential oils.
With the discovery of distillation & condensation techniques, essential oils entered the materia medica of herbalists & apothecaries. However, it was slowly lost owing to the scientific discoveries that defined disease only as a ‘physical entity’. From 16th to 18th century the use of aromatic essential oils as medicine survived only through the practice of traditional naturopathic healers.
The birth of Aromatherapy
The science & art of using essential oils in healing was rediscovered by René-Maurice Gattefossé, a famous French chemist, in 1910 through an accidental incident in his laboratory. His hand was severely burnt during an experiment & he plunged his hand in a liquid close to him, which happened to be a jar with Lavender essential oil. From this point, Gattefossé started researching on the healing potential of essential oils. In the year 1928, he published a book, in which he first used the term ‘aromatherapie’. Gattefossé is regarded as the father of modern Aromatherapy.
Before the book by Gattefossé came out, two Italian researchers, Giovanni Gatti & Ranto Cayola published their paper, The Action of Essences on the Nervous System, in 1923, which demonstrated the effects of essential oils on human psychology. The use of essential oils against infectious pathogens was researched & established by a French physician, Dr Jean Valnet in the mid-20th century. Being a doctor in the Army, he treated wounds of soldiers with essential oils with great success & continued using them in his medical practice. He published his work ‘Aromatherapie’ in 1964.
By this time, in France & Italy, other researchers were also working on the healing power of essential oils. Their subsequent publications revealed different aspects of Aromatherapy. In Australia, research work on the properties of trees like eucalyptus & tea tree, native to the country, were also published during this period.
In 1950s, Margaret Maury, a biochemist & cosmetologist from Austria learned about the works of different French researchers. She also studied the healing traditions of Tibet, India & China & combined her knowledge to introduce the idea of massaging essential oils on the skin for therapeutic benefits. In late 1970s & early 80s her work was taken up & developed further by other Aromatherapists like Robert Tisserand, Patricia Davis & others.
- Aromatherapy is a holistic healing process that involves choosing, blending & applying/ inhaling/consuming essential oils extracted from different plant parts for healing conditions of imbalance & disharmony within the system.
- Aromatherapy recognizes that the different aspects of a human being – physical, mental & emotional – are not isolated from each other & it aims to offer a comprehensive treatment for overall well-being of the patient.
- Aromatherapy is an alternative medicine discipline that uses essential oils, the volatile substances extracted from special aromatic plants, as healing agents.
In UK, US & Australia aromatherapy is practiced as a healing modality in itself & also takes an important place within the total health care system, truly completing the care offered to the patients. In these countries, qualified aromatherapists work alongside medical practitioners in GP surgeries & hospitals.