History of aromatherapy

I have a copy from a book, translated from German into French already in 1900... (a friend in france copied it for me, just some finishing pages are missing, I have it up to oil number 422 Bois de quipita...). It's from Gildemeister und Hoffmann -Leipzig-New York "Traité publié sous l'Auspice de la Maison Schimmel et Cie à Leipzig" Traduction par A.Gault 1900

Origins of distillation. Short history.

It's nor easy to fix with certitude the date of the first extraction with distillation what we call "essential oils". The first distillations helped to obtain alcohol from wine, the "spirit" in fermented honey.

This probably date from the period just after the flood, according to the Hebrew writings.

( Genesis 9:20-24)

Even though since thousands of years aromatic herbs, balsams and resins were used to enbalm, religious ceremonials or sacrifices, no document gives us a clear evidence of the preparation of essential oils.

Song of solomon 1:3

"The odor of your ointments is fragrant; your name is like perfume

poured out; therefore do the maidens love you"

The oldest witnesses about the use of natural products are written in the sanscrit books of the Ayurvedas.

We can conclude that the Hindous knew fermentation, rudimentary distillation units and the distilled products resulting from this process. Calamus and andropogon are mentioned. They were probably alcohol extracts. Dioscoride Pedanius, Greek doctor of Cilicia in the first Century, wrote during the reign of Nero a work "About medical matters" that was reproduced during the Middle Ages by the Arabs. He was searching the origins of the invention of distillation after he had noted the medical possibilities of distilled waters. Egypt was the cradle of art and distillation. The ancient Persians and Egyptians isolated other perfumes and knew the essential oils of turpentine, the resins of Pistacia terebenthus, without doubt the first essential oil, because obtained with dry distillation.

The Romans, big consumers of perfumes, knew them as fatty aromatics or perfumed oils. Dioscoride, Pline and Claudius Galenus mention them in their writings.

The first written documents about the history of distillation go back to the writings of Geber (Dschabir) in the IX century: description of dry distillation and water distillation.

No other nation was better trained in Alchemy, medecine, natural sources as the Arabs. The Arab doctors and alchemists had invented the "serpentine" in order to increase the refrigeration of the distilled product. The first authentical description of essential oils was made scrupulously careful by Arnold Villanova of Bachuone in the XIII century concerning turpentine and rosemary, about sage by Raymond Lulle. But the herbs were first macerated in "l'eau de vie" or fermented in water, because of the presence of alcolhol, the separation of essential oils was not produced and they only obtained distilled aromatic waters. In the same era the essential oils of bitter almond, rue, cinnamon, rose and sandalwood were distilled. About the end of the XV e Century, Jerome Brunschwig, doctor in Strasbourg mentiones only Spikenard, turpentine, juniper wood and rosmary. The aim of the distillations was the obtention of Quintae essentiae.

But all these distillations were strongly alcoholised and they had no idea at all about essential oils. After a lot of publications about the art of distillation we have to wait until 1563 where Giovanni Battista della Porta wrote "Liber de distillatione", in order to specify clearly the fatty oils, the essential oils and the methods to separate the essential oils from the aromatic distilled waters.

It was only during the XVI and XVII Centuries that the essential oils received their first proper applications and their introduction into the commerce.


Aromatherapy is growing rapidly worldwide.

I see two possibilities:

Aromatherapy will come under attack from the pharmaceutical industrie (you know, those mighty people, with a lot of money and influence on for instance FDA). Seeing a drop in the sales of their drugs worldwide, they have to make the choice: embracing this new medecine or attacking it.

In Europe we can see two directions: -they already embrace the use of herbs (commercially interesting because of the general interest in natural products)

-they interfere in the European Community by showing how dangerous herbs can be, thus influencing legislation in different countries, my country, Belgium included (my country is a nice test case, because it's a small country with no much opposition possibilities). We see a new inquisition growing, placing many tradionally used herbs being put on a new "Index", the same things are possible with the essential oils.

For instance: it's sufficient to take sage essential oil as an exemple: the big amount of alfa en beta thuyone can cause problems. Animal tests can quickly show this. Such a test could provoke an interdiction of free sale of sage oil.

Much will depend on our (the aromatherapy community) behavior and actions. We need to teach our customers and be well informed ourselves. There are for instance some sage herbs containing very low levels of alfa en beta thuyone, so even oral intake (in normal conditions)is not harmfull. We need to show the difference between these sage essential oils. There are other similar exemples.

At this moment the Internet still gives us the possibility to exchange our knowledge and experiences.

I'm curious to see how things will growe, but I have mixed feelings

... and you ?

Michel Vanhove


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