In the 1920s Renne-Maurice Gattefosse discovered that essential oils could penetrate the skin through the blood and lymphatic systems. He coined the term aromatherapie and his book of that name, published in 1937，examined the anti-microbial effects of oils. Since then work with aromatic oils has been called Aromatherapy.
It is said that Gattefosse conclusively proved that oils contain therapeutic properties when he burned his hand in a laboratory explosion and then plunged it into a bowl of lavender oil. Others in the laboratory were amazed at the speed of the healing process on his hand, proving that lavender is the most curative of oils for burns and wounds.
All oils are natural antiseptics, and some are anti-biotic, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory or anti-bacterial; some are stimulant and others are sedative. Oils are collected in different seasons; for instance, pepper oil is extracted from unripe berries; coriander oil when the fruit is ripe; and sandalwood – which is becoming increasingly rare – can be extracted only when the tree is more than thirty years old.
It is a popular misconception that aromatherapy is a relatively new form of treatment and/or a fad. All the ancient civilizations used essential oils, not just for anointing themselves but also as palliatives for pain and as mood enhancers. Traces of cedarwood, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon have been found impregnated in mummies, bandages.
Indian Ayurvedic medicine and aromatic massage is three thousand years old. The use of oils spread to Greece and Rome and around the time of Ovid, when Jesus was born, Rome had as many perfume shops as Greece. Petronius wrote, ‘Wives are out of fashion, mistresses are in; rose leaves are dated; now cinnamon is the thing.’
Hippocrates advocated that, ‘The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.’ During a plague he urged Athenians to burn aromatic oils to protect them from infection and there are many treatises by ancient physicians and botanists, such as Marestheus, Pliny and Theophrastus, on herbal medicine. The consensus was that the best recipe for health was to apply sweet scents to the brain. Knowledge of oils and their properties was gathered over thousands of years and, in the eleventh century, a Persian physician and philosopher called Avicenna discovered distillation and the healing properties of oils.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries several books on aromatherapy were written, often containing advice that is still followed 400 years later. We know today, for instance, that eucalyptus oil can prevent viruses from spreading, just as the famous sixteenth-century English herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, wrote: ‘The oil drawn from the leaves and flowers [of eucalyptus] is of sovereign help. Touch the temples and nostrils with two or three drops for all diseases of the brain.’
Herbalists passed their knowledge down from generation to generation right into the eighteenth century, but then herbalism was eventually replaced by new chemical drugs and was not reinstated until Gattefosse burnt his hand in the early twentieth century.