Egypt may have been the first.
It is a little difficult to say where the use of essential oils began. The biggest problem is simply defining what qualifies as essential oil use.
It seems that the Egyptians may have been the first people to extensively make use of essential oils and aromatic herbs. They began to use it in religious functions such as the embalming process. Oils of cedar wood, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and myrrh were used by the Egyptians to embalm the dead. When a tomb was opened in the early 20th century, traces of the herbs were discovered with intact portions of the body. (Amazingly, the scent, although faint, was still apparent.)
The Egyptians invented a rudimentary distillation for cedar wood oil, most likely infused oils for others. Mesopotamians distillation pots have been found at Tepe Gawra dating back about 3,500 BC. It is also thought by some that Persia had crude distillation machines, but very little is known.
The Egyptians also used perfumes to a great extent. It is even believed that the Egyptians coined the term “perfume”. Egyptian men of the time used fragrance as readily as the women. One way they applied perfume was to place a solid cone of perfume on their heads. It would gradually melt and would cover them in fragrance.
China and India on the other side of the world.
The Chinese may have been one of the first cultures to use aromatic plants for well-being. They are well known for making use of herbs and aromatic plants. They may have started burning incense and using essential oils back nearly one thousand years. At about the same time, or slightly later, these same practices were also taken up as an integral part of the Indian Ayurvedic medicinal system.
The Greeks learned a great deal from the Egyptians, and also recognized the medicinal and aromatic benefits of plants. Hippocrates, commonly called the “father of medicine”, was the most well-known physician of that time, (c.460 – 377 BC). He was also a firm believer of treating the patients with both essential oils and medicinal herbs. He also made aromatic massage a standard treatment.
A Greek, named Megallus, created a perfume called megaleion. Megaleion included myrrh in a fatty-oil base and served several purposes: (1) for its aroma, (2) for its anti-inflammatory properties towards the skin and (3) to heal wounds.
The Romans took over the medicinal wisdom of the Greeks and 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.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Dark Ages we saw the emergence of the Arabian empire which was in the position to draw not only from the Greek and Roman teachings, but also those of China and India. It is the Persian physician Avicenna (980 – 1,037 AD) that is credited with perfecting the distillation process of essential oils. Avicenna’s contribution lead to more focus on essential oils and their benefits.
By the 12th century, an Abbess of Germany named Hildegard grew and distilled lavender for its medicinal properties. Within a century, the pharmaceutical industry was born. This event encouraged distillation of essential oils.
The Dark Ages
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 (“Thieves Oil”). It was the monks, housed in their monasteries, which tended after the sick and kept herbal medicinal wisdom alive.
Since the Church saw bathing as sinful, great stock was placed on aromatics to keep stench at bay, and most of the aromatics used also had anti-bacterial and anti-pesticide properties.
During this time there was a swing back again too essential oils. The noteworthy physician, Paracelsus (1493 – 1541) proved his knowledge by having great success in curing leprosy. 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”. His studies radically challenged the nature of chemistry and he focused upon using plants as medicines.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, perfume starting being considered an art form, and it was more clearly defined as its own field. By the 19th century, perfume was a prosperous industry. The 19th century also was important scientifically as the major constituents of essential oils became isolated.
As we moved into 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. However, this actually weakened the use of essential oils for medicinal and aromatic benefit.
Then a French chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé, became interested in the use of essential oils for their medicinal use. In 1910 he burnt his hand badly in his laboratory and being the first available compound handy, treated his badly burnt hand with pure undiluted lavender oil, which not only immediately eased the pain, but also helped heal the hand without any sign of infection or scar. Gattefossé is credited with coining the term “aromatherapy” in 1928 within an article where he supports the use of using essential oils in their whole without breaking them down into their primary constituents.
In 1937, Gattefossé wrote a book named, in English, Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy. Jean Valnet is most remembered for his work using essential oils to treat injured soldiers during the war. The highly respected 1977 publication Art of Aromatherapy was the first aromatherapy book published in English.
Since the late 1970 and early 80’s the use of essential oils has become a major part of alternative and holistic health systems, and has a huge following across the world. On into
the 21st century, there is a growing resurgence to utilize more natural products including essential oils for therapeutic, cosmetic and aromatic benefit. Today’s heightened awareness has refueled the use of essential oils for therapeutic use.
Price, Shirley. Shirley Price’s Aromatherapy Workbook. London, UK: Thorsons, 1993. ISBN: 0-7225-2645-8.
Tisserand, Robert B. The Art of Aromatherapy. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1977. ISBN: 0-89281-001-7.
Lawless, Julia. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Rockport, MA: Element Books, Inc., 1995. ISBN: 1-85230-721-8.
Manniche, Lise. Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy & Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. ISBN: 0-8014-3720-2.
Gattefossé, René-Maurice. Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy. Saffron Walden, UK: The C.W. Daniel Company Limited, 1993. ISBN: 0-85207-236-8
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.