A Short History of Aromatherapy

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Aromatherapy is a branch of holistic herbal science using aromatic oils and compounds as medicine and for aesthetic, spiritual, and other purposes. People (and nonhuman animals, for that matter!) have chewed on roots, smelled flowers, and otherwise engaged with herbs and plants as holistic medicines for thousands of years, but only recently have these practices being collected under the term ‘aromatherapy.’

While aromatherapy is a contemporary field of holistic healthcare that is only around a hundred years old, it stands on the shoulders of traditional herbal medicine, and is bringing new understanding to how plants can be distilled and worked with in different forms.

An Essential Breakthrough

When most people think of aromatherapy, they immediately think of essential oils. The use of these oils is derived from centuries of traditional knowledge about the medicinal, aesthetic, hygienic, and spiritual applications of herbal oils in numerous ancient civilizations around the world.

Learn more about safer essential oil use here.

The specific creation and use of essential oils however is usually either attributed to Ibn al-Baitar, a 12th century Al-Andalusian herbalist and physician whose notes record discussion of distillation techniques to prepare oils for medical uses, or, Avicenna, a 10th century Persian physician who used steam distillation to create essential oils. Regardless of who is specifically credited as the originator of essential oils, their use is as old as distillation, and historically was seen as a continuation of the healing relationships between people and plants popular for hundreds of years before even that.

Medicine From Fire

Canonically, contemporary aromatherapy in the modern world begins with a factory explosion. In 1910, a perfume chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé was burned in a fire that broke out in his company’s laboratory. While he and other workers were somewhat successfully treated by modern medicines of the time, Gattefossé developed a gangrene infection in his wounds. Left with few desirable outcomes in this situation, Gattefossé decided on a whim to apply the distilled lavender oil his company was popularizing directly to his wounds. And the results were amazing.

Gattefossé came away from the incident convinced of the healing power to be rediscovered in traditional herbal medicines. For the next few decades, Gattefossé collected evidence of the antiseptic and healing properties of essential oils, eventually publishing these findings under the term ‘aromathérapie’ in the late 1930s, although it was quickly overshadowed by the development of modern antibiotics.

His work attracted the sympathetic and curious attention of many of his contemporaries in the modern medical community, including dermatologists, general physicians, and war-time doctors in the military. Between Gattefossé and these other medical professionals, essential oil treatments for gangrene, venereal diseases, scabies, and more are alleged to have been discovered.

Aromatherapy Today

Just over one hundred years later, aromatherapy is now taught around the world via independent in-person classes, in academic classrooms, and over the internet. People in larger cities can find essential oils at pharmacies and large chain stores, order them from independent distilleries, or distill them in their own homes. A handful of multi-level-marketing companies even provide discounted essential oils to their members, as well as instructions on how to use them as part of one’s daily life.

With regards to this last development in particular, I am reminded of the tension in the story of Gattefossé. As a commercial perfumer who later developed strong ties to the mainstream medical community, Gattefossé in some ways more closely resembles the aromatherapists found behind today’s multi-level-marketing companies than the traditional healers many other herbalists and aromatherapists prefer to look to as role models.

But at the same time, Gattefossé makes his discovery not directly from his work in a corporate lab, but as a result of the corporate lab literally exploding. In this sense, the contemporary field of aromatherapy is born as a counter to industrial aromatic oil production. Its fruits are yet to feed the masses the same way vaccines and antibiotics do, but for over a hundred years now, aromatherapy has provided complementary care to factory workers and soldiers harmed one way or another by the modern, industrial world.

Many of us who explore any ‘alternative’ modalities are responding to these same conditions. And I think that is the key takeaway from aromatherapy’s history: aromatherapy is born out of using traditional wisdom to heal the wounds of modern living.


Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to info@pat-mosley.com

AromatherapyPat Mosley