Aromatherapy - A Modern History

In a somewhat simplified overview of essential oils, it is generally believed that the process of distillation originated in the East (Egypt, Persia and India), although the methods and equipment developed in the West allowed essential oils and aromatic extracts to reach their highest potential. In other words, it has been an unintentional collaboration. There are some historical records as to how herbal and aromatic preparations were first extracted or produced, but it is pretty certain that the first and only essential oil written about, appearing in De Materia Medica of Dioscorides, was Oil of Turpentine. The earliest aromatic oils - primitive versions of enfleurages or extraits, macerates and infusions - were not volatile, but constituted the extent of other types of odiferous materials.1

Although the term aromatherapy was not coined until the late 1920s, humankind has benefitted from aromatic plants in the form of incense, skincare preparations and perfumery for thousands of years. French chemist Réné Maurice Gatttefossé is remembered as one of the pioneers of Aromatherapy. In 1937 he published the book Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales (Aromatherapy: Essential Oils, Vegetal Hormones), later translated into English as Gatttefossé’s Aromatherapy that is still in print today.

The research of distilled oils continued in earnest, mostly in Europe, with a great deal of attention paid to those for culinary and perfumery applications. In the US, essential oil production appears to have begun commercially in the early 19th century with Turpentine and Peppermint, and later citrus peels, Birch, Wintergreen and others.3 2 The vast pine forests of the Americas offered a seemingly unlimited supply of Turpentine essential oil. Turpentine oil has broad commercial applications and is nowadays diversely employed as a solvent, an air freshener, and a helpful ingredient in massage oils.The ubiquitous essential oil of Peppermint - an easy crop to cultivate - has found use in a multitude of topical and aromatic preparations.3

Other notable aromatherapists who helped lay the foundation for modern practice are Dr. Jean Valnet, known for his book (originally published in French), The Practice of Aromatherapy; Madame Marguerite Maury, an Austrian biochemist who brought aromatherapy into the world of cosmetics and developed their use in massage; Pierre Franchomme and Dr. Daniel Pénoël - French researcher and medical doctor, respectively, who co-authored the seminal L’Aromathérapie Exactement in 1990; Robert Tisserand, an aromatherapist from the UK, recognized for bringing aromatherapy to English speaking populations and for writing The Art of Aromatherapy, the first aromatherapy book published in English in 1977, as well as being co-contributor to Essential Oil Safety with Rodney Young; Kurt Schnaubelt, a German-American chemist, who advanced functional group theory and produced the first international conferences on aromatherapy in the US.

There were and continue to be many, many more contributors to the very existence of essential oils - clinical researchers, farmers, wildcrafters, artisan distillers and those who help us reflect on the botany, chemistry, ritual, folklore and origins of the plant’s relationship with humans. However, the extraordinary, aromatic world of plants is revealed, we know it won’t disappoint. To learn more about the art of Aromatherapy, please visit the other sections of Aromatherapy 101 on this site, and take a moment to explore our recommended reading list!

1 Guenther, Ernest. The Essential Oils, Vol. I, 1948, p. 9-10.

2  Ibid.

3 Ibid.