Ancient Egyptians are generally regarded as the true founders of aromatherapy. Most of their healing oils were prepared by placing aromatic plant material in a vegetable oil or animal fat base and leaving the mixture to infuse in the sun for several weeks. Egypt was the cradle of the sciences including medicine, pharmacy, perfumery and cosmetology. Perfumes used as offerings to the gods. Egyptians believed in reincarnation and wished to keep the body in good condition after death for its journey to its new life. Hence they embalmed their dead with aromatic resins.
Greeks and Romans further advanced the use of aromatic oils and ointments. Hippocates praised the virtues of a daily bath and scented massage to prolong life. The Greeks made a vital contribution to the further study of plant medicine by classifying and indexing the knowledge they gained from the Egyptians.
In ancient China, herbal medicine was used in conjunction with acupuncture and massage to treat a myriad of ailments dating back more than 2000 years BC.
The Vedic literature of India around 2000 BC lists over 700 substances including cinnamon, ginger, myrrh and sandalwood. Their literature reflects a spiritual and philosophical outlook in which humanity is seen as part of nature and the handling of herbs as a sacred task.
In the 11th century the Persians were credited for the distillation process. Avicenna was the physician and alchemist who sophisticated and refined the process and first made it possible to extract the pure essential oil. It is said that the first successful distillation were made from Rosa centifolia.
The 16th century gave rise to a new era for progress and spread of knowledge. People smothered their unwashed bodies and clothes with perfumes and carried little bouquets of aromatic herbs to prevent catching infectious illness and to mask the stench of filthy city streets.
In the 20th century, a French cosmetic chemist by the name of Rene Gattefosse (1881-1950) coined the word “aromtherapie” in a book detailing his own work with the therapeutic application of essential oils.
An ex-army surgeon Dr Jean Valnet (1920-1995) is credited with having contributed most to the medical assessment and acceptance of aromatherapy. He used essential oils to treat battle wounds of soldiers during the Second World War.
An Austrian biochemist by the name of Maugerita Maury (1895-1968) primarily developed holistic aromatherapy in which essential oils are applied to the body using massage or other simple applications.