IFA Logo

             News   |   Events   |   Aromatherapy Awareness Week  |   Blog 

Service User Policy  |   FAQ's  |   Contact Us  |  Visit Us 

History of Aromatherapy

The therapeutic use of aromatic plants seems to be as old as human civilisation itself. Plants such as fennel, coriander seeds, cumin and many others have been found at the sites of ancient burial grounds. Many texts from Asia to Ancient Egypt, and much of the Mediterranean area, describe the various procedures and rituals involved in the making of healing ointments, medicated oils, poultices and healing perfumes.
 
The practice of using aromatic fumigations to uplift the spirit and help cure diseases has also been used by the world's greatest civilisations throughout history. References in some old texts to 'magical perfumes' that enhance personal attraction and promise happiness are numerous. Spiritual perfumes for religious ceremonies have also been used in history particularly in Ancient Egypt and in Tudor England.

Pre-History
Aromatic oils have been a part of human history for more than 3,500 years BC and appear with regularity throughout all major civilisations down the ages, with uses ranging from religious ritual, food flavouring, medicines, perfumery and the masking of bad odours. It is impossible to date exactly when plants were first used medicinally, since such a development would have taken place over thousands of years.

Prior to modern-day scientific tests, the properties of different plants would have been discovered very much through trial and error, and by observing animals instinctive knowledge about which plants to eat when sick. Such knowledge would have been passed on to succeeding generations as part of a verbal tradition, eventually becoming the herbal medicine that we recognise today, and out of which aromatherapy developed.  

These early civilisations would also have realised that burning certain plant material produced unusual effects (e.g., sleepiness, heightened awareness, visions, etc). ‘Smoking’ a person is one of the earliest recorded forms of treatment with herbs and was often used to drive out evil spirits. Such experiences were often connected to religion, and since aroma is carried through air, and both air and the breath were considered to be manifestations of the divine, a connection was ultimately made through aroma between the human and the divine. Even today, this tradition continues with Eastern temples ritually burning incense on Hindu and Buddhist altars, and the Roman Catholic church continues to use a censor containing burning frankincense within its church services.

Furthermore, during the Neolithic period (approx 6-9,000 years ago) in the Eastern world, there is evidence that humanity discovered certain plants contained fatty oil – plants such as, olive, castor, flax and sesame – which could be extracted by pressing and then used to cook with, anoint with, and for their own medicinal preparations.

India
Ancient India was one of the first civilisations that aimed at treating people holistically.  Traditional Indian medicine, known as Ayurvedic (meaning ‘life knowledge’), is the oldest form of medical practice in the world, with plants and plant extracts being in continuous use there from at least 5000 years ago up to the present day.  
    
Written in India at about 2000BC, one the oldest books on plants is called, “Vedas”, and it lists the various uses of over 700 plants and substances, such as sandalwood, ginger, myrrh, cinnamon and coriander, for both religious and medicinal purposes.  

China
Ancient Chinese knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants was incredibly advanced. The Chinese system of healing, involving medical treatments such as acupuncture, shiatsu and herbal remedies can be traced back to 2500BC, forming the basis of what we know today as “Traditional Chinese Medicine” (TCM). The primary focus for health is the balance of Qi (energy), Yin and Yang (passive negative and positive active forces) and the five elements (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, Wood). At around 2800BC, the Yellow Emperor (Huang Ti) wrote a book called “Internal Medicine”, about the causes and treatment of disease, including within its pages details on many plants and their herbal remedies. It is one of the oldest books in the world, and can still be obtained in print today. However, China’s main contribution to the aromatherapy story lies within the citrus family, since it is believed that nearly all the citrus species originated in this country, eventually reaching the Mediterranean world in the 10th century via the Arabs.

Egyptians 
It is the ancient Egyptians though who are generally regarded as the pioneers of the use of aromatic plants. Not only did they use fragrant oils in incense, medicine, massage, skincare and cosmetics, but also in their highly refined process of embalming the dead.

There are no records showing that the process of distillation had been invented at this time, so the only methods of producing aromatic oils available to the Egyptians would have been ‘enfleurage’ and ‘maceration’. Enfleurage involved soaking the plant material in oil, with the whole mixture then being tightly wrung through a cloth to retrieve the fragrance, whilst maceration involved heating the aromatic material in oil.  

During this period, gardens of the pharaohs were used to grow a vast array of medicinal herbs from all over the world. But it was the temple priests and physicians of the day who were in charge of the medicinal preparations, produced from aromatic oils, and the composition of perfumes for the Pharoahs which were used for anointing them in times of prayer, war and love.

Personal hygiene was important to the Egyptians and the Ebers Papyrus of 1500BC contains one of the earliest recorded recipes for a body deodorant to be discovered, demonstrating that Egyptian physicians had a thorough knowledge of the properties of a large number of herbs. The use of perfume was especially important to the Egyptians and was closely linked with religion. In fact, it was so important, that each Egyptian god was assigned a particular fragrance, which was often used to anoint their statues. Some prescriptions and formulae to improve sanitation have also survived, being recorded on stone tablets.  One of the favourite ways of applying perfume was by placing a cone of solid unguent on the head which would slowly melt in the heat, covering the head and body with the aromatic mixture.

The ancient Egyptians were experts at using plant resins and essences in embalming and to perfume the temples. Indeed, when the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened in 1922, by Howard Carter and his team, several pots and jars were discovered which still contained scented unguents of frankincense, Indian Spikenard and kyphi (see below) – they had been sealed for over 3000 years.

The strong antiseptic and antibacterial properties of oils were used embalm the dead, helping to prevent the flesh from rotting, with the intention of preserving mummies for 3000 years, since it was believed that this was how long it took for the soul to pass through all the animals of the earth and then back into a human being.

One of the Egyptians’ favourite perfumes though was called “kyphi” which was used as far more than a just a perfume, since it could also be applied as an antiseptic, incense, poison antidote, a balsamic and according to Plutarch, also a tranquiliser, which “lulled one to sleep, allayed anxieties and brightened dreams”. Kyphi contained a mixture of 23 different ingredients, including calamus (a powerful narcotic), cassia, cinnamon, peppermint, citronella, pistacia, juniper, acacia, henna, cyperus, ‘resin’, cedarwood, frankincense, myrrh and raisins. So intrinsic to Egyptian society was kyphi that in Heliopolis (the City of the Sun), the sun god, Ra, was worshipped through the burning of incense three times a day – a “resin” was burnt at sunrise; myrrh at noon, and kyphi at sunset. Kyphi also went on to be used by both the Greeks and the Romans too. 

Aromatic woods, herbs and spices were also burnt to honour their Gods – Egyptians believed that as the smoke rose, it would carry their prayers with it.

When this magnificent civilisation eventually crumbled into decline, it was Europe that became the new centre of medicine. 


Greeks
The Greeks gained a lot of their knowledge about aromatic plants from the Nile Valley in Egypt, called the “Cradle of Medicine”, and this came about as a result of a visit to this region by Herodutos and Democrates in about 4-500BC. Herodotus also records how Assyrian women would “bruise with a stone, wood of the cypress, cedar and frankincense, and upon it poured water until it became of a certain consistency. With this they anointed the body and face to impart a most agreeable odour”. Subsequently, a medical school was established on the Greek island of Cos and this eventually became famous through the patronage of Hippocrates.

Hippocrates (460-377BC), born in Greece, and known as the “Father of Medicine” wrote about the useful properties of plants and herbs, effectively recording all the knowledge that had been gained from the Egyptians. His treatments would include massage with infusions, the internal use of herbs, baths and physical therapies. Surgery would only be used as a last resort and he regarded the entire body as an organism – the concept of holism. 

Even as far back as the 4th century BC, Hippocrates recognised that burning certain aromatic plants offered protection against contagious diseases.  At one time, he even used this knowledge of aromatic essences to fumigate Athens and rid it of the plague.  Together with Galen (2AD – see the “Romans” below), Hippocrates taught about the “healing power of nature”. He is quoted as saying that, “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day”, and that, “The physician must be experienced in many things, but assuredly in rubbing … for nothing can bind a joint that is too loose, and loosen a joint that is too rigid”.  

The foundation of Greek medicine was based on mental, emotional and physical balance.  Disease was viewed as a disturbance of this balance, with the route back to health being a re-balancing of these three – in other words, holism.  

Today, Hippocrates is probably better known for the Hippocratic Oath that all newly qualified doctors must swear allegiance to.

But it was Theophrastus (370-285BC), a Greek philosophy student of both Plato and Aristotle, and later leader of the Peripatetic School, who wrote the first treatise on scent, called “Concerning Odours”. He made a list of all the Greek and imported aromatics, discussing ways in which they could be used. And, it was Theophrastus who recorded one of the most fundamental principles of aromatherapy - that aromatic oils when applied externally can still affect the internal workings of the body. His work entitled “Enquiry into Plants” demonstrates the first attempts to record systematically the observations of plants and to list them according to their similarities, e.g. whether they were annual, biennial or perennial.

The Greeks believed that sweet aromatic aromas were divine in origin. In their ancient myths, gods descended to earth on scented clouds, wearing robes that were drenched in aromatic essences. After death, the Greeks also believed that the departed went to Elysium where the air was permanently fragranced with sweet-smelling aromas from perfumed rivers. A Greek, called Magallus, created a perfume combining myrrh, cinnamon and cassia which was called “Megaleion” and which became famous throughout the country, due in no small part, to its wound-healing and anti-inflammatory properties. This should be of little surprise, in view of the fact that Greek soldiers would also take an ointment, containing myrrh, into battle for its excellent antimicrobial and wound-healing properties.

Another famous Greek, a renowned physician, called Marestheus, realised that certain aromatic plants were often possessed of stimulating properties and that rose, fruity and spicy aromas were uplifting for the tired mind.  


Romans
Many Greek physicians were also employed in Rome and so passed on their knowledge to yet another advanced civilisation. However, the Romans not only used aromatic plants for medicinal purposes, but also went on to increase their use in hygiene and beauty preparations. Aromatic oils and essences were used regularly in public baths, both in the water and in massage blends.  

The Roman Empire became vast and, consequently, had access to a great variety of plants and herbs. As a result, they were excessive in their use of perfumes and aromatic oils.  They used three kinds of perfume: ‘ladysmata’ which were solid unguents; ‘stymmata’, scented oils; and ‘diapasmata’, powdered perfumes. These were used to fragrance hair, bodies, clothes, bedding and for massage after bathing. It is reputed that Cleopatra seduced Mark Antony through the expert use of perfumed oils. And, apparently, Nero once burnt more incense than Arabia could produce in an entire year at his wife’s funeral.  Interestingly, the word ‘perfume’ actually comes from the Latin ‘per fumum’ meaning “through the smoke” and relates to the burning of incense. 

Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90AD) was a Greek military physician in the Roman emperor’s army at the time of Nero. He was able to travel extensively (Germany, Italy, Spain) and wrote a book called, “De Materia Medica” (the oldest surviving Greek herbal). This is a massive five volume tome listing the habitat of about 500 plants, how they should be prepared, together with their healing properties, and over 1000 botanical medications. This book remained the standard medical reference for the Western world for at least the next twelve hundred years and earned Dioscorides the title of “The Father of Pharmacology”. De Materia Medica is the premiere historical source of information about the medicines used by the Greeks, Romans, and other cultures of antiquity, with much of the herbal knowledge in Dioscorides’ book still influencing herbal medicine today.  

Claudius Galen, was a prominent Roman (of Greek ethnicity) physician, surgeon and philosopher who studied medicine and began his medical career by treating the wounds of Roman gladiators with medicinal herbs, giving him an opportunity to study wounds. It is said that no gladiator died under Galen’s care and, because of his success, he quickly rose to become the personal physician to several Roman emperors. It was Galen who believed that it was not the nose that interpreted smell but the brain.

Over time, the Roman Empire spread to cover vast areas of the world and so did their knowledge of the healing effects of plants – it was Romans who introduced perfumery to the British Isles. Seeds and plants were collected from all over and some of them eventually made it to the shores of Britain to become naturalised over time – plants such as, fennel, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

However, at the fall of this massive empire, and with the coming of Christianity, many Roman physicians fled to Constantinople taking precious medical books with them which were eventually translated into a whole variety of other languages.


Hebrews and Early Christianity
At around 1240BC, the Jewish people began their exodus from Egypt on a 40-year journey to Israel, taking with them a variety of precious gums and oils, together with the knowledge of how to use them. God instructed Moses, in the Old Testament book of Exodus, to create a ‘holy anointing oil’ made from myrrh, sweet cinnamon, calamus, cassia and olive oil.  Such a combination would have had very powerful anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, giving protection to all those with whom it came into contact. Not only that, but the wound-healing effects of myrrh were already well known, even before this time. 

Within the Hebrew civilisation, purification of Hebrew women took place over the course of a year, and during the first six months this was accomplished by regular anointing with ‘oil of myrrh’, with other aromatics being used for the latter six months. During the exodus, and at other times, when bathing was impractical for Jewish women, a small linen bag containing myrrh and other aromatics was hung on a cord between the breasts to act as a deodorant.

Whereas, ancient Indian temples were built of sandalwood, King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem was built of aromatic cedarwood (“cedars of Lebanon”). Perhaps they also recognised the need for a calming atmosphere when attending religious ceremonies.

Records show that Phoenician merchants brought precious cinnamon, frankincense, ginger and myrrh from the Orient. And it was two of these incredibly valuable gifts, frankincense and myrrh, that were given to Jesus at his birth. Symbolically, they represented his status as a deity (frankincense for a God) and his death (myrrh was used to embalm the dead). Gold, incidentally, was symbolic of his royal status (gold for a king).

Spikenard was reputed to have been imported from India and was used by Mary to anoint Jesus before his crucifixion and the sponge that was held up to him, whilst he hung on the cross, was a mixture of vinegar and myrrh (perhaps intended to ease the pain of crucifixion victims).


Middle Ages (500-1500AD) 
It was the Knights of Crusades that brought aromatic essences and waters back to Europe. These became so popular that perfumes began to be produced. However, the real value of these plants and herbs was only fully appreciated when the bubonic plague arrived in Europe during the 14th century. Orders were given for fires to be lit at night on street corners burning, amongst other things, frankincense, benzoin and pine.  Indoors, the smell of death and the battle against infection was fought using incense and perfumed candles, together with aromatic “strewing” herbs which were scattered across floors to be trodden on, thereby releasing their own aromas in an attempt to stem infection and mask what must have been extremely unpleasant and unhealthy bodily odours. Therefore, aromatics were widely used to combat the Black Death at this time, people very often carried, or wore, aromatic plants in the form of pomanders, which consisted of an orange, stuffed with cloves, or wore herbal bouquets. These aromatic plants were the best antiseptic protection against the Plague at this time and people knew it. It is interesting to note that apothecaries and perfumers were thought to be immune to the Plague, due to their regular handling of aromatic plant material.

Doctors at this time often wore a nose-bag which contained aromatic herbs, such as cinnamon and cloves, in an attempt to filter the air they breathed, creating an antiseptic atmosphere which was thought to protect against the Bubonic Plague. They also waved in front of them as they walked a long stick with an openwork top, also containing aromatic herbs, in the hope of disinfecting further the air they breathed. Doctors continued to use these methods throughout the Middle Ages and into the 17th century.

However, it was the monasteries who became the main cultivators of aromatic plants at this time, some of which had found their way to these shores from Italy – thyme and melissa. These aromatic gardens were later continued by the universities of medicine when botany became part of the study of medicine, eventually developing into botanical gardens during the time of the Renaissance, or ‘physic’ gardens as they eventually became known. The first of these physic gardens to be established in Britain was in Oxford in 1621.

During the 12th century a German Abbess, called St Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 17 September 1179) grew lavender for its therapeutic properties, also using its essential oil. She was well known for her healing powers involving the practical application of tinctures, herbs, and precious stones. 

During the Middle Ages, the main route of trade with Arab civilisations at the time was via Venice and it was here that the origins of a craze for perfumed leather gloves can be traced. It is possible that an Italian noblewoman, Catherine D’Medici introduced this fashion to the rest of Europe on the occasion of her marriage to the future French king, when she took her perfumer with her to France in 1533. Grasse, in France, at that time mainly produced leather, but when this fashion began to take off, the canny businessmen of Grasse began perfuming their leather with the aromatic plants that grew around the town – eventually using plants such as tuberose, acacia, violets, lavender and roses.  As the fashion dwindled, Grasse’s leather industry was gradually replaced with perfume manufacture, which remains the case to this day.  

At the end of the 15th century, in a town which is now in modern-day Switzerland, Philippus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim was born (1493-1541). Commonly known as Paracelsus, he became a famous physician, astrologer, surgeon and an alchemist in the 16th century, revolutionising medicine and laying the foundations for both modern medicine and alternative medicine today. He was the first person to succeed in separating the gross part of plants from their more subtle components, ie isolating active chemical agents in plants, a process which is now routine in today’s pharmaceutical industry.  In 1536, he wrote a book called the “Great Surgery Book” and made it clear that the main role of alchemy (the original word for modern-day chemistry – see under “Medieval Islam), was not to turn base metal into gold but to create healing medicines from certain plant extracts, which he named ‘quinta essentia’ ie quintessences or essential oils.   Because of his emphasis on the importance of distillation for the release of the most important part of individual plants, certain oils such as cedarwood, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, rose, rosemary and sage became well known to pharmacists by 1600.


Medieval Islam
An Arab physician and philosopher, called Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (AD 980-1037) was born in Bukhara, Persia. He began studying medicine at the age of 16 and by 20 had been appointed a court physician and was given the title ”Prince of Physicians”. He wrote many books describing the effects of various plants on the body. His 14 volume “Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb”, which means “The Canon of Medicine”, was a monumental medical encyclopedia and included the Hippocratic and Galenic traditions. It became the definitive medical textbook and teaching guide throughout Western Europe and the Islamic countries for over 700 years.  

He is also thought to have refined the then very simple method of distillation by inventing the refrigerated coil, a process which involved extending the length of the cooling pipe and forming it into a coil, allowing the steam to cool more quickly and efficiently. His first major success in this improved distillation method was the production of Rosa centifolia essential oil. (Ultimately, it was Damascus in Syria that became a major producer of roses during the 13th century and, eventually gave its name to the Damask Rose.)

Another particularly interesting use to which the Arabs turned their essences, was that of perfuming the mortar used to build their mosques - an intriguing art which had been passed on to them by the ancient Babylonians.


Tudor Times (1485-1603)
The practice of perfumery did not really become popular in Britain until the time of Elizabeth I.  Unfortunately, the lack of hygiene in the Western world continued from the Medieval times, all the way into the Tudor period. This necessitated the employment of various methods to disguise the unpleasant smells, and possibly render dangerous ‘miasmas’ harmless.  One example, from 1611 is Carmelite Water, or Eau des Carmes, which was created by French Carmelite nuns and, containing Melissa, this water was to be in popular use for centuries.

Aqua Mirabilis, or ‘wonderful water’ was another development at this time (1665) and was introduced by a one-time Franciscan monk who came to live in Cologne from Italy. His recipe finally gained fame through the efforts of his nephew, J M Farina, and came to be known as ‘Eau to Cologne’. It contains essential oils of bergamot, orange, lemon, rosemary, lavender, thyme and neroli, diluted in a strong ethyl alcohol and used as a health promoting lotion.

Another development during the 16th century was that of Royal Hungarian Water (also known as Hungary Water) which, amongst other things, contained fresh rosemary blossoms, sage, rose and lavender, distilled over alcohol.

But there were more ways of using essences than just in aromatic waters.  The English word “pomander” comes from the French “pomme d’ambre”, meaning “apple of amber” or “ball of ambergris”. Pomanders took various forms, but were essentially a mixture of aromatic substances enclosed in a perforated bag or box which was then used to scent clothes and linens or carried as a guard against infection. A clove-studded orange or apple could also be used for the same purpose, as could a lozenge or aromatic ball of substances like resin, gum, wax or dirt mixed with musk, rose petals, herbs and spices.

From the Middle Ages right up to the 1700s, pomanders were carried, held to the nose, suspended on chains or girdles or hung in rooms to ward off bad smells, freshen clothes and make the wearer smell nice. It was also believed that these sweet smelling herbs and spices could ward off infectious diseases and protect the wearer from illness. Elizabeth I was said to carry a pomander scented with Damask Rose, Benzoin and Ambergris - a few pomanders also appear in the lists of New Year’s gifts to the Queen.


17th Century 
Medicinal herbs were widely used during this period, which sadly, paved the way for charlatans and quacks to make some easy money. Unfortunately, as a result, herbal medicine began to lose the respect of the physicians and medical profession of the day.

Nevertheless, this was the golden age of the great British herbalists, such as Culpeper and Gerarde. Nicholas Culpeper (18 October 1616 – 10 January 1654) was a botanist, herbalist and physician. Inspired by the work of medical reformers such as Paracelsus, who rejected traditional medical authorities, Culpeper published books in English, giving healers who could not read Latin, access to medical and pharmaceutical knowledge. Culpeper listed hundreds of medicinal herbs in his famous book called, “The Complete Herbal” which was published in 1653, republished in 41 subsequent editions, and continues to influence herbal medicine today.  

Because of the progress made in the process of distillation, many essential oils were now included in the ‘materia medica’ of the herbalists. In addition, many households not only prepared their own culinary herbs, but also had their own ‘still room’ where the women would prepare their own domestic medications, vinegars, wines and distilled spirits – this activity was known as ‘simpling’.

By the end of this century, there was a divergence between the profession of the apothecary, the physician and the alchemist. Alchemy became the chemistry and pharmacy professions we know today, with the result that all interest in the inter-relatedness of matter and spirit separated, effectively severing the connection between medicine and psychology.

18th Century and Industrial Revolution
At around 1700 the use of essential oils had become part of mainstream medicine, and this continued until the science of chemistry developed to such an extent that synthetic materials could be created in a laboratory. For example, salicylic acid, the active ingredient in willow was synthetically produced in 1852.  It was during this period that the laboratory began to replace the herb garden as the main supplier of medicines.

Unfortunately, as in so many other cases, the industrial revolution in Britain saw the decline of many ancient ways and the use of herbs and simples was to be no exception. People moved into the industrial towns and cities from the country in an endeavour to find more profitable work, moving into terraced housing with little or no access to garden land. Sadly, as a result, the art of using fresh herbs in cooking and ‘simples’ was lost.


19th Century Scientific Approach
The first recorded laboratory test on the antibacterial effects of essential oils was carried out in 1887. This initially came about as a result of the prolific spread of tuberculosis, and observations that workers handling the processing of flowers and herbs were essentially free of respiratory disorders.

So began, in 1887, the very first scientific research into essential oils and their effects upon micro-organisms. Further research was carried out in France by Chamberland, later being confirmed by Cadac and Meunier. The research confirmed that essential oils had the ability to kill the micro-organisms responsible for glandular fever and yellow fever.

Development of new chemical processes made it easier to extract oils from plants but at the same time, synthetic and cheaper versions of the components of essential oils were created. This led to commercial mass-production of remedies containing artificial ingredients rather than natural formulas for the individual. Herbal medicine soon became considered “quackery” compared to scientific alternatives. 

By 1896, a scientific revolution was underway, as chemical science was becoming ever-more developed. The new thinking involved isolating an active chemical compound from within a plant and synthesising it for mass production, thereby enabling large quantities to be cheaply produced, which were of a uniform standard.  Unfortunately, this decision meant the synthetic versions contained very few of the therapeutic properties of the original. 

So essential oils were taken apart molecule by molecule and, for the first time, chemists were able to identify and name the various chemical components of these ancient oils and their mysterious properties, giving us geraniol, citronellol and cineol from which cheap, synthetic copies could be made.

These synthetic copies proved to be very powerful, and are what modern drugs are based on today.  Unfortunately though, dabbling in this way with natural products, caused numerous side effects to develop when using synthetic drugs.  These side effects then often require treatment in themselves, which leads to further side effects and further problems developing.

Unfortunately, natural essences were, in the main, left out of the official pharmacopoeias, with just a few exceptions for those with carminative properties and flavouring agents.

The perfume industry also experienced steady development at this time, embracing whole-heartedly the use of these new aromatic synthetics, over and above the original natural essences.  It is around this period that the town of Grasse in France finally became the world centre for the cultivation and extraction of essences.

Sadly, as the scientific approach to medicine flourished, herbal medicine and aromatic remedies lost more and more credibility as effective treatments, becoming regarded as “quackery” and “old wives tales”.


Development of Aromatherapy in the 20th Century
Italian doctors, Renato Cayola and Giovanni Garri conducted experiments on the psychological effects of essential oils during the 1920s and 1930s. They observed the effects of the oils on blood pressure, the nervous system, pulse and breathing rates, in particular their stimulating and calming effects, although the antibacterial effects were also noted.

Since its first introduction into Britain after the Second World War, the aromatherapy industry has steadily gone from strength to strength, becoming a lot more structured than its first humble beginnings, and expanding from its origins in the beauty therapy industry, into healthcare environments, hospitals, GPs surgeries and complementary health centres.    

The clinical approach to aromatherapy continued to develop in France and in 1969, Maurice Girault developed the ‘aromatogram’, based on research by Schroeder and Messing.  Aromatograms involve a laboratory technique which identifies the antimicrobial abilities of specific essential oils in relation to specific microbial pathogens. As a result of this development, many further investigations have been carried out into the antimicrobial potential of essential oils.

Meanwhile, in France, Daniel Penoel (a student of medicine and naturopathy) became interested in Jean Valnet’s work. He collaborated with a chemist (Pierre Franchomme) to develop what later became known as ‘scientific aromatherapy’. The focus was on treating infections with essential oils and this approach is known today as ‘aromatology’ or ‘aromatic medicine’. 

Over time, professional organisations, representing the industry were established, the International Federation of Aromatherapists being the first, in order to give the emerging therapy more credence and structure. As a result, educational standards for aromatherapy have greatly improved, with other different bodies being set up to deal with subjects such as the quality of essential oils, self-regulation of the industry, an umbrella body for the aromatherapy associations, EC legislation, NHS registration.

Nowadays, Aromatherapy is one of the most popular and effective forms of complementary medicine. The positive effects of aromatherapy are finally being proven through clinical research in laboratories around the world, despite the fact that the usefulness of these little oils has been empirical knowledge for thousands of years.