The Science and History of Modern-Day Essential Oils: Part II
January 29, 2015
If you were here yesterday, you know I talked for a while on the basics of what essential oils are. If you hadn’t had a chance to read it, it’s right below this post and a great place to start in learning about oils. Now today, I get to talk to you about the history of essential oils and the modern-day rediscovery which I’m very excited about. I personally love history and I find this to be an extremely interesting topic. You may not find this as intriguing as I do but hopefully you’re able to understand why people are passionate about this. So I suppose to get to where we are today, I should start with how oils first began.
There’s really no way to know exactly when or who was the first to discover essential oils but from ancient writings and traditions, we see that aromatic oils were used for religious rituals, treatment of illness, and other spiritual and physical needs. Records dating all the way back to 4500 BC describe the use of balsamic substances in religious and medical applications. We have ancient texts that tell of resins, spices, scented barks, and other things used in temples and other places for all kinds of purposes.
Much of the knowledge we have today about essential oils stems from the ancient Egyptians. They mastered the use of aromatic oils and of course, the embalming process. A Grand Vizier of Egypt by the name of Imhotep, who ruled under King Djoser from 2780 – 2720 BC, is given a lot of credit in bringing in the use of oils, herbs, and the like for medicinal purposes and pushing out the previous method of magic. Imhotep was considered one of the first real architects and engineers of the world as well as being a renowned philosopher and poet. He was a big reason essential oils were considered “pharaonic” medicine meant for the highly privileged.
We can see from hieroglyphics that the Egyptians were very fond of aromatic blends such as frankincense, myrrh, and juniper, all of which they considered divine remedies and were used very frequently in anointment. The Egyptians were also very smart in keeping their essential oils in alabaster vessels, very large and heavy jars that kept the oils from prolonged exposure to heat and light. In 1922, when King Tutankhamen’s (who we know as King Tut) tomb was opened, nearly 50 alabaster jars designed to hold 350 liters of oil were discovered. Upon making the discovery, they found that only traces of oils remained and that tomb robbers had taken the oils over a plethora of gold and other jewels. They literally skipped over a king’s fortune in precious metals for some oils. If that doesn’t say something about the quality of oils they were, I don’t know what does.
In 1817, a medical scroll by the name of the Ebers Papyrus was discovered that dated all the way back to 1500 BC. Upon unraveling it, it turned out to be over 870 feet long. The scroll included over 800 different herbal remedies and prescriptions for 81 unique diseases. Most concoctions contained myrrh and honey. You can see they were very ahead of their time as myrrh is widely recognized for its ability to help with numerous infections as well as regenerating skin tissue. The Egyptians were of course very concerned with their physical beauty so this was a main reason they persisted in their use of myrrh.
The Egyptians weren’t the only ones who benefited from the oils thanks to the trade market found throughout the Mediterranean. The physicians of Ionia, Attia, and Crete, and other civilizations were able to experience the oils. At that time the School of Cos was founded based on the traveler’s new-found knowledge and attracted many philosophers from the area. One of these students was actually Hippocrates, who was later known by many as the “Father of Medicine”. Eventually the oils made their way over to the Roman empire where they were diffused throughout their temples and political buildings as well as in their steam baths to invigorate themselves and fight off disease.
Early methods of extraction were a bit crude but ultimately got the job done. One of the earliest and most popular methods was known as “enfleurage”. Raw materials such as stems, roots, leaves, and bark were crushed down and mixed with olive oil and animal fat. They would grind the plant matter in a powder soak it with olive oil and place the material into a wool cloth. That cloth was then heated so that the plant particles would be pushed into the oil. Upon heating, the wool was pressed to extract the oil. We can see that using a carrier oil like olive oil is not a new idea.
Enfleurage was also used in extracting oil from flower petals. The word “enfleurage” literally means “to saturate with the perfume of flowers”. For example, rose or jasmine petals were placed in either goose or goat fat. The droplets of oil were pulled from the petals into the fat and then separated from that fat. This was one of the earliest and most primitive way to extract essential oils.
There are hundreds of other historical references to essential oils. From ancient Greek offerings, to Arabian cures, to Napolean’s personal cologne, essential oils have played a large part in what we know today about the body. I haven’t even covered the Biblical history yet. I won’t go too much into it but you can find a very interesting story about essential oils in the book of Numbers in chapter 16. Here, Moses instructs Aaron to take burning coals and incense and protect the healthy from a plague that was affecting many of the Israelites. Aaron did so and the plague was kept at bay. If you look throughout the Old Testament and the requirements for incense, we find that cinnamon was a key component.
Now let’s get into the rediscovery and the popularization of the oils in our own time. Essential oils really were brought back into relevance during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During World War I, the use of aromatic oils in military hospitals became commonplace. A physician in France by the name of Dr. Mociere, actually used essential oils known for their anti-bacterial properties to help in the healing process of open wounds because infection was still a very real problem in this time. You’ll notice that France tends to be a centerpiece in the re-birth of essential oils, even now today.
Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, PHD, was another Frenchman who was a chemist. He really revolutionized the spur in essential oils and is widely regarded as the father of aromatherapy. Dr. Gattefosse really was a true aromatherapist. He began to study the oils in 1907 with a group of other scientists but didn’t understand their true potential firsthand until 1910.
Dr. Gattefosse’s laboratory experienced a large explosion in July of 1910 with the doctor still inside. He was literally on fire and after he extinguished the flames on his body, he inspected himself. He wrote that “both my hands were covered with rapidly developing gas gangrene”. I would encourage you NOT to do a Google Images search on gas gangrene like I just did unless you have a very strong stomach. Needless to say, it’s a very serious infection that can occur at a point of recent trauma or surgical spot. A few days later, he noted that “just one rinse with lavender essence stopped the gasification of the tissue. This treatment was followed by profuse sweating and healing which began the next day.” Seeing a picture of what gas gangrene is now, I’m astounded that lavender could do so much so quickly.
Dr. Gattefosse shared his findings with other colleagues and friends, including Jean Valnet, a medical doctor in Paris. During World War II, Dr. Valnet was treating soldiers in China when he ran out of antibiotics. Remembering what his friend had told him, he began to use essential oils on his patients and much to his delight, they played a powerful role in fighting infections that might have otherwise killed the patient.
From Dr. Gattefosse’s testimony, two of his students expanded his work and clinically investigated the medicinal properties in the essential oils. They really laid the groundwork for future generations in terms of understanding what these oils did. In fact, a French medical doctor and a bio-chemist teamed together to co-author the first modern reference book that listed over 270 essential oils, their medical properties, and how to use them in a clinical environment.
Now of course, we know of thousands of oils thank to the work that these men and civilizations performed first. We can thank them for not only for their willingness to help others but for reviving the oils that had been lost in time. Hopefully you found this interesting!