Aromatherapy History: A Renaissance

The term 'aromatherapy' - or French 'aromathérapie' - was coined in 1928 by French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. His interest in all essential oils was sparked following an accidental laboratory explosion in which he burned his hand. To soothe the burn he immersed his hand in the nearest liquid, which, quite by chance, was neat lavender oil. The chemist was impressed by the oil's fast-working effects, speeding up healing of the would and preventing scarring.

Amazing properties

Gattefosse's discovery led to his study of the antibacterial, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects of essential oils and his work contributed to the revitalisation of natural medicines.

Other chemists in Europe were also researching essential oils. The chemist Penfold led the investigation into tea tree oil n Australia, while in Italy, the effects of jasmine and lemon oils on human psychology were stidied by Drs Giovanni and Renato Cayola.

Wartime research

It is an historic irony that war and progress have gone hand in hand. During wartime, the need for better machines and weapons and new drugs and medical techniques has seen advances in technology and medicine. During the Second World War, gattefosse's work in military hospitals helped advance the science of essential oils. He was able to witness first hand the effects of aromatherapy on soldiers' wounds.

Surgeon's notes

In his Aromathérapie; Les huiles essentielles hormones végétales Gattefosse records: "Wounds to the scalp: healed in 10 days. Forearm woulds: healed in 15 days... after failing with all other medicines... it must be concluded that... greater attention needs to be devoted to the power they [essential oils] have on revitalising tissue". Gattefosse's work on the battlefield influenced many of France's doctors.

Aromatherapy Through to Modern Times

Aromatherapy's new renaissance looked likely to be short-lived until a woman's touch combined medical empiricism with holistic healing.

Dr Jean Valnet

Gattefosse's work greatly influenced French army surgeon Dr Jean Valnet, who went of to write a book, Aromathérapie, now considered a bible to modren-day aromatherapists. Aromathérapie was not published until as late as 1964 and it detailed the amazing regenerative powers of essential oils that worked without side effects.

dr jean valnet

After WW2, Valnet instructed other medical professionals in the use of natural therapeutics, but he still exercised scientific apprehension in his approach to aromatherapy. He was well aware of the inherent dangers of prescriptions of essential oils, and was said to be horrified by the idea of self-medication and lay practitioners.

This empirical approach was almost the undoing of aromatherapy and looked likely to confine the practice to the laboratory to keep it out of amateur hands. What aromatherapy needed now was a woman's touch.

Marguerite Maury

marguerite maury

Valnet's work was studied by French biochemist and beautician Marguerite Maury, who pioneered the development of the healing system of aromatherapy as it is known today. Maury is often called the mother of aromatherapy.

Her book 'The Secret of Life and Youth' approached the use of essential oils in beauty therapy, massage and a broader health care encompassing mind, body and spirit.

The importance of dosage and dilution of essential oils in suitable carrier agents such as vegetable oils, established by the 16th century, was emphasised by Maury in application for massage.

As chairperson for the CIDESCO (le Comité International D'esthétique et de Cosmétologie), Maury built bridges between the science of aromatherapy and the beauty industry. She was followed by Micheline Arcier, who developed many of today's holistic methods.

Aromatherapy today

So, what now for the future of aromatherapy? As yet, there doesn't appear to be an appropriate platform from which aromatherapy can perform a modern role that is true to its ancient philosophy and in keeping with current medical and scientific regulations. But aromatherapists can observe what the laboratory cannot: the particular likes and dislikes of smell that influence the treatment of a patient, the effects of other factors on health such as lifestyle, diet, habit and outlook, and consider individual responses to different modes of treatment with cultural perspective.

Many aromatherapists would welcome regulation, but for now practitioners can only opt for self-regulation with professional bodies. There is also the danger that should a natural product such as essential oils be classed as a medicine it may be removed from the public domain and left solely for doctors to prescribe. Imagine not being allowed to go into a health shop or pharmacy to buy lavender or tea tree oil.

But for the time being at least, aromatherapy is left without official consensus of its role and philosophy in the modern day. Unofficially, the practice is very much alive. Many people, not just aromatherapists, keep a small store of essential oils and, without realising it, live with them every day. Tea tree kept in the bathroom cabinet to dab on a spot, lavender in the kitchen in case of burns, arnica cream in the first aid kit to heal bruising and citrus oils burning in the summer to ward off insects.