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Aromatic History!

Aromatherapy enjoys a rich and extensive history as a medicinal tool throughout many
centuries. However, like many areas with a rich and deep history, there are a great
number of myths surrounding the history of aromatic medicine as well. In this unit, we
will be working through the history of the uses of aromatic plants, touching on the most
significant events and dispelling some of the more abundant myths to create a full
overview of aromatic history.

The use of aromatic plants through the field of herbalism is the oldest form of medicine
known to humankind. Infused oils have been recorded in all ancient cultures and were
used throughout daily life for medicinal, pampering, and even spiritual events.

Ancient Aromatherapy

It has been said that aromatherapy is natures oldest medicine, though that statement
cannot be validated historically. While aromatic oils are frequently referenced in ancient
texts, those typically refer to infused oils similar to what is found in herbalism, not
distilled oils. Aromatic plants were used by infusing the plant matter into an oil - often
olive oil - much like we still do today in the field of herbalism. This method extracted
many of the valuable compounds from the plant, including the essential oils, so that the
infused oil provided numerous medicinal benefits. These benefits include antimicrobial
and anti-inflammatory compounds, as well as wound healing compounds, which would
have been extremely valuable to ancient cultures that relied heavily on plant medicine
for healing. However, this method of production did not and could not produce essential
oils as we know them today, and the distinction between modern essential oils and an
infused oil is an important one.

During the days of the ancients, modern distilled aromatic extracts - essential oils - were
not produced or purchased for these numerous uses. They used aromatic plants as
infusions, often combined with other substances or oils for maximum benefit. Aromatic
plants were also dried and burned to release the volatile compounds and they were
developed in herbal preparations for healing. While directl anthropologic records dating
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the earliest steam distillers vary, essential oilsas we know themwere not introduced
until much later in history.

Ancient Aromatic Methods

The most widely utilized form of aromatic medicine during the days of the ancients was
in the form of an herbal extract. To produce an herbal extract, whole plant matter (dried
or fresh) is infused into a liquid menstruum (solvent). This menstruum may be an oil,
alcohol, honey, vinegar, or even water. Many oils documented in ancient texts and
Scripture were made by infusing botanicals into olive oil.

Another common method in which aromatic plants were used by the ancients is in the
form of incense. According to Maria Lis-Balchin, PhD, author of Aromatherapy Science,
incense was frequently formed from dried aromatic plant material combined with honey
and wine. It was burned to release the fragrant odor, which was used in many ancient
practices from the solemn religious ritual to the home for everyday life. In the miasma
years, aromatic plants were burned in the streets in the hopes of clearing the foul air,
which was believed to be the source of disease and death. For the full picture, however,
lets begin with the earliest written records of aromatic plant use.


The ancient Egyptians used aromatic plants such as myrrh, frankincense, cinnamon,
lavender, thyme, and cassia extensively in their mummification process. These
botanicals provide such strong odors that would scent the tombs occupant for extremely
lengthy periods of time. Legend holds that when anthropologists discovered King Tuts
famous tomb, they could still smell the faint odor of frankincense that had been sealed
in the tomb some three thousand years. Modern science confirms that not only did these
botanicals contribute to a less pungent aroma of death, they played a crucial role in the
preservation of the bodies that has shown to be effective for millennia. Today, the
antimicrobial effects of essential oils are some of the most valuable benefits of the plant,
as we will study later in this course.

The Egyptians also knew that these aromatics had strong medicinal purposes, and used
them in medicine for both physical and emotional health. Egyptian hieroglyphics depict
the idea that an individuals aroma could directly influence the emotions of others, both
positively and negatively. These hieroglyphics also depict aromatic plants being used in
everyday life, providing further evidence that they were featured in burial and religious
rituals, but were not limited in use to the more solemn times of life. They were used
routinely for countless occasions, including as a deodorant and to treat mental

While many of these were sourced from other African countries, the Egyptians obtained
their spices from various trade routes established across the ancient world. The Old
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Testament describes Joseph being sold into slavery, purchased by a caravan of traders
making their way to Egypt with spices, balm, and myrrh. The holy anointing oil used in
the tabernacle contained cinnamon, myrrh, and cassia, all of which are strong aromatics
and pungent antimicrobials. The book of Proverbs tells us that perfume rejoices the
heart, and Song of Solomon is full of mentions of aromatic herbs and spices that were
frequently used.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans

Trading of aromatic botanicals thrived during these historic periods. Trade routes were
expanded to stretch over 2,000 miles upon which myrrh, sandalwood, cinnamon,
pepper, spikenard, and other such goods were traded between Africa, Asia, Europe, and
the Middle East. During this time period and continuing through the Middle Ages, these
aromatic spices were worth far more than their weight in gold. Rulers and the wealthy
collected these botanicals like they collected jewels and gold. These plants were also
used in everyday life as well as elaborate settings.

Athens was famous for its perfumeries with numerous merchants providing botanically
derived perfumes and incense, which were often stored in small, but intricate and
elaborate containers. The Romans considered aromatic spices to be the ultimate in
luxury, and these fragrances were used to perfume palaces, temples, and homes alike. It
is said that Nero burned a years worth of cinnamon upon the loss of his wife, angering
top Roman officials.

These plants were valuable not only for their aromatic benefits, but also for medicinal
purposes. They performed double duties, providing an enjoyable medicinal cure, not
unlike modern aromatherapy. Legend has it that Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine,
protected Athens from great plague by burning massive fires of aromatic herbs in the
streets. As the legend goes, this drew complaints and mockery from many, but the
protective measures were said to be effective.

This habit of burning aromatic woods and herbs in the streets to protect inhabitants
from plague was continued into the Middle Ages, where numerous public aromatic fires
were burned to cleanse and purify the air. While aromatic plants do perfume the air,
releasing their volatile oils when heated, modern scientific understanding has clarified
that many of these plagues were actually spread by flea carrying rats that transmitted
disease from the rats to humans in towns across Europe.


The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and a scented massage every day
Hippocrates c. 400 BC

Hippocrates also is known for recommending an aromatic bath and fragrant massage
daily as a preventative measure for great health. This early spa treatment would be the
ancient version of todays aromatherapy based massages and body soaks, combining the
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benefit of hydrotherapy and aromatherapy. Many years later, the Greek physician
Pedanius Dioscorides was known for his 5 volume treatise that became a medical
reference for over a thousand years. One of these volumes featured aromatic plants with
uses that are still common today.

Aromatic plants were also said to have been a driving factor behind the ambitions of
Alexander the Great, and as he traveled the world and conquered regions, the
acquisition of valuable aromatic plants would certainly have been a motivator. The value
of aromatics in various times past frequently surpassed gold, and a great number of
explorers and successful business men and women pursued and achieved wealth by
finding sources of these plants. For the acquisition of aromatics, wars were waged,
countless battles fought, empires were won, and empires were lost. New lands were
discovered, countries and cultures were exploited, families were made wealthy, and
countless lives were lost - all for the pursuit of aromatic plants.

Middle Ages

As the ages pass, control of the spice trade continues to be a significant goal of major
countries and cultures. The use of rose infusions, both oil and water infusions, became
popular medicinal and pampering treatments, and lavender water, said to have been
invented by the Abbess, St. Hildegard of Bingen, was recommended for numerous
ailments. Hildegard (1098-1179) was an herbalist who wrote 4 treatise on herbs,
including Causea et Curae - or Causes and Cures - which expanded on the benefits of
these fragrant herbs.

During approximately the 8th through 15th centuries, the spice trade was primarily
controlled by Venice. This was established firmly by the 13th-15th centuries, making the
country impressively wealthy. Much of the credit for the Italian monopolization of the
spice trade was given to Marco Polo, who established direct trade routes, thus
eliminating the use of middle men, as was so common at the time. This increased
revenue substantially and many other European countries looked for their own paths
directly to the source of these valuable spices.

Explorers frequently were commissioned and funded by royalty and the wealthy, in such
attempts. In May of 1498, Vasco da Gama was the first to sail directly from Europe to
India, significantly improving the Portuguese economy thanks to the acquisition of
pepper and cinnamon. During the route, when asked the purpose of his voyage, he is
said to have replied that he came in search of Christians and spices.


However, while certain aromatic herbs and spices were more valuable than gold, other
aromatic plants were also used frequently in daily society. Perhaps no historic outline of
aromatherapy is more commonplace than the discussion about the burning of aromatic
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woods in the streets under the belief that the scents could keep away the horrific plagues
that troubled the nations.

This story is frequently cited as evidence of the innate knowledge about the benefits of
plants and aromatic oils. We now know that many essential oils are rich sources of
powerful antimicrobial compounds and it stands to reason that our ancestors must have
had some natural knowledge of that benefit that caused them to want to burn these
aromatic plants in the street for protection. However, like many things, the truth to this
story is much less glamorous than the legend.

These events occurred prior to the introduction of the germ theory. At the time,
advanced medical minds proposed the miasma theory as the rationale for the spread of
disease. Microbes had yet to be established as important elements of health and key
medical researchers had frequently noted the link between the stench of foul, rotting air
and the onset of disease. According to the History of Medicine in Londons Science

In miasma theory, diseases were caused by the presence in the air of a

miasma, a poisonous vapour in which were suspended particles of decaying
matter that was characterised by its foul smell. The theory originated in the
Middle Ages and endured for several centuries. That a killer disease like malaria
is so named - from the Italian mala bad and aria air - is evidence of its
suspected miasmic origins.

In 19th-century England the miasma theory made sense to the sanitary

reformers. Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation had created many poor,
filthy and foul-smelling city neighbourhoods that tended to be the focal points of
disease and epidemics. By improving the housing, sanitation and general
cleanliness of these existing areas, levels of disease were seen to fall, an
observation that lent weight to the theory.

The Germ Theory

The germ theory of health is credited as belonging to Louis Pasteur, though the germ
was actually discovered over 150 years before his time. This theory replaced the miasma
theory over a span of several decades in the late 1800s and is the prevalent theory of
infectious disease still today. While modern epidemiologists utilize a combination of
theories, such as the emerging hygiene theory, to explain chronic diseases, the germ
theory still identifies microbes, not foul odors, as the correct source of infectious
disease. This theory enables modern researchers to utilize substances found in nature
and developed in laboratories to fight illness and implement more effective prevention
strategies. This change in perspective, however, didnt occur overnight.


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John Snow and the Broad Street Pump

One of the most important medical events to occur in the 1800s was the establishment
of the field of epidemiology and the widespread acceptance of the new germ theory of
disease in place of the prevalent miasma theory. Both of these events can be traced to an
incident that occurred late summer 1854 in the Soho area of London.

At the time cholera outbreaks were relatively commonplace and a London based
physician/anesthesiologist suspected that the outbreaks were caused by something
other than the stench of living in poverty. He proposed that they may be infectious due
to transmission of microbes in the water. When the 1854 outbreak occurred, he was
successful in documenting the spread of the illness and linking the cases to a certain
water pump on Broad Street. He successfully had the handle to the pump removed,
preventing further infections and saving the lives of many. While he was mocked by
contemporaries, his work continued to document the actual transmission of the illness
and his germ theory of disease became accepted over the next decade. Now, John Snow
is recognized as the Father of Modern Epidemiology and the event is documented in
medical history as a turning point in the attitudes linking scent and disease.

While progress was made in the medical realm, the shift from focusing on scent to
microbes for prevention of disease transmission and treatment options meant that
aromatic plants were largely neglected for the next hundred years of medical history.
Far from being associated with disease, aromatic plants soon became the tools of
perfumers and health spas.

Aromatherapy in the 1900s

The dawn of the modern aromatherapy age is said to have occurred in France, where
perfumery was in its prime. A chemist by the name of Ren-Maurice Gattefoss is
credited for this newfound awareness of aromatic medicine and even for coining the
term aromatherapy.

As the legend goes, he was working in his laboratory one day, surrounded by distilled
aromatic oils. Having been studying the chemistry of these oils, he had developed an
interest in their potential healing abilities. In the lab that day, he sustained a fairly
severe burn on his arm. He plunged it into a vat of lavender oil. Some legends insist that
he simply plunged it into the nearest vat of liquid, happily being a safe and healing
aromatic oil and then devoted his life to the study. Others insist that he knew all along
that the lavender oil had the potential to expedite the healing of his arm. His own record
of the event supports the latter.

Gattefoss himself recounts the story describing the severity of the burn; it required him
to roll around in the grass to extinguish the flames and caused a serious case of
gangrene. He applied the lavender oil to the damaged tissue and the healing rapidly
followed. How much of this can be attributed to theory and how much should be
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considered a fortunate accident, only he knows. But what we do know about the incident
is that it was an important landmark in the history of modern aromatherapy.

He continued his study of aromatic oils in depth, and compiled much of his experience
into a book named Aromatherapie. This wasnt his first published work on the science;
he had written several on the subject, often discouraging the use of fragmented oils, a
common occurrence during that time. However, Aromatherapie would be the book he is
remembered for writing. This book was released in the 1937 bearing the title he is said to
have coined within an article written in 1928.

By the 1960s, several physicians were using aromatic oils in their practices, but the habit
was primarily restricted to use in France and Britain. It would not be until the late 1900s
that aromatherapy expanded to other continents and countries to become commonly
used. Throughout the 1900s, other aromatherapy pioneers worked within the field,
including the French physician Dr. Jean Valnet, who studied the antimicrobial benefits
of oils, and the Austrian born biochemist Madame Marguerite Maury, who wrote The
Secret of Life and Youth, which was released in France in 1961 and Britain in 1964.

Aromatherapy Today and Tomorrow

While there are an abundance of scientific data regarding essential oils, the quality of
education from course to course varies dramatically. Much of this is due to the fact that
most aromatherapists entered the field through the aesthetics or massage industry; very
few popular names have entered through a medical or scientific field. While herbalism
and integrative medicine have made the way into major colleges in the US with
prominent researchers and physicians studying the scientific information and making
guidelines about appropriate and safe uses, the aromatherapy field has, until recently, in
large part relied upon folklore or information handed down from a small group of self
taught or educated through experiential data group. The field is only now beginning to
expand beyond the alternative, experiential approach to a respectable scientific
discipline with the introduction of modern scientific research methods.

What this means for aromatic medicine is that for every popular recommendation, you
will get a dozenor moredifferent opinions which are usually based upon personal
experience or upon the personal experiences of their self-taught educators, not upon
scientific data. For example, there are major national brands selling a teething remedy
for babies that utilizes strong and potent dilutions of clove oil. It is diluted in a
chamomile extract to provide anesthetic and anti-inflammatory benefits for teething
babies. Tens of thousands of these have been sold and the strong topical use of clove oil
has been recorded for many decades in medical journals. Yet, most modern
aromatherapists would recommend against the practice - not because it is not safe (it is)
or because it is not effective (it is) simply because it is not what they were taught from
their teachers.

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It is not the goal or purpose of this course to share personal experiences or experiences
of those who have gone before us in the field. Were taking a different approach to the
subject; were taking advantage of the great scientific advancements that have taken
place in the field to provide an alternative to the experiential method. In this approach,
high quality scientific research will take the primary role in the curricula and personal
experiences and opinions will be maintained as side notes or left out completely. This
provides you the opportunity to learn from the most accurate advancements in the field,
not the limited views of the experiences of one or two professionals.

This scientific approach is a new one to the field, but one that is rapidly becoming the
standard for a natural science that is gaining in popularity. As consumers of essential
oils grow in number, the demand for hard evidence in place of personal anecdotes will
become the standard, not the deviation, and you will be well prepared with the latest
knowledge and information about that scientific evidence. This approach is beneficial
for traditional aromatherapy and absolutely crucial for the safe and effective use of
essential oils in an aromatic medicine approach.

As we continue through this unit, we will dig further into the distinctions between
aromatherapy philosophies. Well also look closer at the use of modern scientific
evidence and why we utilize this approach with such a traditional field of natural health.

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