Last updated: 3 Oct 2019  |  2252 Views  | 



Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine in which essential oils or other scents are inhaled to achieve therapeutic benefit. Some essential oils such as tea tree have demonstrated anti-microbial effects, but there is still a lack of clinical evidence. Evidence for the efficacy of aromatherapy in treating medical conditions remains poor, but recent studies have shown that aromatherapy may be beneficial for some health problems.


The use of aromatic botanicals and aromatic oils date back thousands of years. Distillation and the use of essential oils dates back nearly one thousand years.


The Chinese may have been one of the first cultures to use aromatic plants for well-being. Their practices involved burning incense to help create harmony and balance.

Later, the Egyptians invented a rudimentary distillation machine that allowed for the crude extraction of cedarwood oil. It is also thought by some that Persia and India may have also invented crude distillation machines, but very little is known.


The Greeks learned a great deal from the Egyptians, but Greek mythology apparently credits the gift and knowledge of perfumes to the gods. The Greeks also recognized the medicinal and aromatic benefits of plants. Hippocrates, commonly called the "father of medicine" practiced fumigations for both aromatic and medicinal benefit.


The Roman Empire built upon the knowledge of the Egyptians and Greeks. Discorides wrote a book called De Materia Medica that described the properties of approximately 500 plants. It is also reported that Discorides studied distillation. Distillation during this period, however, focused on extracting aromatic floral waters and not essential oils.


A major event for the distillation of essential oils came with the invention of a coiled cooling pipe in the 11th century. Persian by birth, Avicenna invented a coiled pipe which allowed the plant vapor and steam to cool down more effectively than previous distillers that used a straight cooling pipe. Avicenna's contribution lead to more focus on essential oils and their benefits.

Within the 12th century, an Abbess of Germany named Hildegard grew and distilled lavender for its medicinal properties.

Within the 13th century, the pharmaceutical industry was born. This event encourages great distillation of essential oils.


During the 14th century, the Black Death hit and killed millions of people. Herbal preparations were used extensively to help fight this terrible killer. It is believed that some perfumers may have avoided the plague by their constant contact with the natural aromatics.


Within the 15th century, more plants were distilled to create essential oils including frankincense, juniper, rose, sage and rosemary. A growth in the amount of books on herbs and their properties also begins later in the century. Paracelcus, an alchemist, medical doctor and radical thinker is credited with coining the term Essence and his studies radically challenged the nature of alchemy and he focused upon using plants as medicines.


During the 16th century, one could begin purchasing oils at an "apothecary," and many more essential oils were introduced.


During the 16th and 17th centuries, perfumery became an art form, and it was more clearly defined as its own field.


During the 19th century, perfumery remained a prosperous industry. Women would have their jeweler create a special bottle to hold their treasured perfume. The 19th century also was important scientifically as major constituents of essential oils became isolated.


During the 20th century, the knowledge of separating the constituents of essential oils was used to create synthetic chemicals and drugs. It had been believed that by separating the major constituents and then using the constituents alone or in synthetic form would be beneficial therapeutically and economically. These discoveries helped lead to "modern medicine" and synthetic fragrances. This actually weakened the use of essential oils for medicinal and aromatic benefit.


During the earlier part of the 20th century, a French chemist by the name of René-Maurice Gattefossé became interested in the use of essential oils for their medicinal use. Previously, he focused on the aromatic use of essential oils, but his interest in their medicinal use grew further upon using lavender essential oil after an accident.


Other highly respected 20th century aromatherapists include Jean Valnet, Madam Marguerite Maury, and Robert B. Tisserand. Jean Valnet is most remembered for his work using essential oils to treat injured soldiers during the war. Austrian Madam Marguerite Maury is remembered as a biochemist who avidly studied, practiced and taught the use of aromatherapy for primarily cosmetic benefit. Robert B. Tisserand is an English aromatherapist who is responsible for being one of the first individuals to bring knowledge and education of aromatherapy to English speaking nations.



Price, Shirley. Shirley Price's Aromatherapy Workbook. London, UK: Thorsons, 1993.

Tisserand, Robert B. The Art of Aromatherapy. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1977.

Lawless, Julia. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Rockport, MA: Element Books, Inc., 1995.

Manniche, Lise. Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy & Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Gattefossé, René-Maurice. Gattefossé's Aromatherapy. Saffron Walden, UK: The C.W. Daniel Company Limited, 1993.

The Kevala Centre. Aromatherapy Origins and Background article.

Australasian College of Herbal Studies. AT 201 Certificate in Aromatherapy Course Book (version from 1999). Lake Oswego, OR.

Ann Harman, Harvest to Hydrosol Fruitland, WA: botANNicals, 2015.

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