Aromatic plants have been used as far back as 18,000BC. It is thought that aromatic plants were burned to drive out evil spirits.
The production of vegetable oils started in the Neolithic period, (7,000-4,000BC) These were Olive, castor, sesame and linseed oils produced by pressing.
Ancient Egyptian records referring to aromatic barks and resins and the use of perfumed oils, aromatic wines and vinegars date back to 4,500BC. Tutenkhamen’s tomb (1,350BC) still contained traces of frankincense, myrrh and a variety of spikenard. As well as the those already mentioned, Origanum, Juniper, Bitter Almond, Coriander and Calamus were also frequently used.
At that time there was little distinction between medicinal, magical and cosmetic/aesthetic use of plant extracts.
The Greeks gave birth to medicine as a science. Aristotle taught the four elements and Hippocrates emphasised medical treatment based on careful observation.
Diascroides, a Greek surgeon in the Roman army of Nero wrote, De Materia Medica which first gave details of when a plant’s active principles are at their most abundant, for example the aroma of Jasmine is strongest after sunset and should be picked at night whereas rose flowers should be picked before noon at the latest.
In the 10th Century, the Arab physician, Avicenna is thought to have discovered distillation, producing aromatic waters as well as essential oils. Rose water became one of the most popular scents arriving in Europe during the Crusades.
By the 13th Century, France had it’s own manufacturers of perfume. Perfumers were reported to be virtually immune from the plague.
In the 1500’s the, “Doctrine of Signatures” was developed, the idea that physical resemblance was related to clinical effectiveness – red rose petals for disorders of the blood.
A more scientific ethos gradually emerged after the plague of 1665. Linnaeus developed his system of classification of plants which has remains largely unchanged today though dna testing has resulted in some plants being re-classified.
In the 19th Century research into essential oils was largely centred upon Grasse in Southern France, however medical use of herbs and oils declined with the rise of chemical medicine. Synthetic perfumes also gained ground during this period.
In the 1920s and 30s, the Italian Doctors, Gatti and Cajoli researched into the medicinal, psychological and cosmetic benefits of essential oils. Paolo Rovesti was the first to show the value of certain essences for anxiety and depression.
Marguerite Maury researched into the cosmetic aspects of essential oils, and brought together, medicine, health and beauty. She helped to establish Aromatherapy as a medico-cosmetic therapy based on massage and published, “The secret of Life and Youth” in 1961.
Research continues today and the number of essential oils in use continues to rise. At the same time some myths about massage and essential oils are dispelled. A number of text books cite Juniper as being contraindicated in pregnancy yet the only connection seems to be the use of Gin during illegal abortions!