5-Star Wellness Retreat

The History of Essential Oils

essential oil bottles and fresh lavender

Essential oils are among the oldest therapeutic agents known to man. Ancient Egyptians were among the first civilizations to recognize the therapeutic qualities of oils. And in the early 1800’s, papyrus dating to 1500 B.C. was found listing over 800 herbal prescriptions and remedies that included the use of many oils.

During the great epidemic of the Middle Ages that destroyed almost half of Western Europe’s population–commonly known as the Bubonic Plague–an enterprising band of thieves took advantage of the high mortality rate by robbing the dead without becoming infected by the disease. The thieves were eventually captured in France and put on trial. The judge offered the thieves leniency if they would reveal how they managed to avoid the ‘Black Death.’ It turned out that the thieves were perfumers and spice traders. By rubbing themselves with a blend of highly antibacterial aromatics, they had become effectively immunized.

Before this period ancient alchemists had begun to explore the nature of matter, trying to prove Aristotle’s view that matter was made of fire, water, earth, and air. In this process they furthered the techniques of chemical separation through extraction and distillation. The earliest were the alchemists of Islamic cultures and this knowledge ultimately passed from the East to their counterparts in Europe. From the distillation of plants came perfumes, then cosmetics and later, pharmaceuticals. It was during this period that the aromatic essences of plants first came to be known as essential oils.

The modern era of essential oils and aromatherapy began to emerge in the early decades of the twentieth century. In July of 1910, the lab of French cosmetic chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé literally exploded, setting his hand and arm on fire. In a panic, he plunged his arm in what he assumed was water. However, it actually contained pure Lavender oil. Pleasantly surprised at the analgesic effects and fearing further damage resulting from the accident, he continued with regular application of Lavender oil. The wound healed with very little scaring. He then investigated the chemistry of the oil in order to discover what properties had caused this tremendous healing effect. Dr. Gattefossé continued his research into the healing properties of other essential oils; and as a result, his studies laid the foundation for the clinical use of essential oils.

This work was followed by Dr. Jean Valnet, a French army doctor who began using essential oils to treat wounded soldiers with gangrene during the second World War. His post-war books introduced the therapeutic use of essential oils to a wider audience, and lead to publication in respected journals of the day. Two of Valnet’s students, Dr. Paul Belaiche and Dr. Jean Claude Lapraz analyzed the antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiseptic properties in essential oils. In 1979, Dr. Belaiche published a work that included results of extensive in-vitro research on the antimicrobial effects of essential oils and their subsequent clinical applications on a wide range of infectious and degenerative illnesses. These advances led to a new level of acceptance by conventional medical doctors, other healthcare professionals, and even some insurance companies in France and other countries.

Talk to your massage therapist about incorporating essential oils during your next visit to SkyTerra Resort & Spa!