Study of Aromatherapy: Art or Science?


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This old French still was used to distill essential oils. Copyright Sharon Falsetto

Aromatherapy is often described as both art and science. Although it is predominately the ‘art’ side that many people focus on, the science of aromatherapy has been studied for centuries, though perhaps not in the familiar format that we know today.

The origins of today’s scientific analysis of aromatherapy began with the early alchemists.

Ancient Egyptian Use of Medicinal Plants

Medicinal plant use dates back to ancient Egyptian records, such as those of the Ebers Papyrus, circa 1550 B.C. More records, such as those of the ancient Indian book of Vedas, record medicinal uses for plants in other ancient civilizations.

However, in these early days, with little proven scientific knowledge of the theoretical properties of plants and plant oils, people also based their beliefs on religion and magic.

Greek and Roman Alchemy

According to the Twisted History of Alchemy, alchemy is thought  to date back to Hellenistic Egypt and was a mix of such subjects as philosophy, pharmacy and mettallurgy. The Greeks learned a lot about alchemy from the ancient Egyptians, and produced several prominent figures that contributed to the early science of medicine. The Romans then took their knowledge from the Greeks. Important names in Greek and Roman alchemy include:

  • Hippocrates (460 BC – 370 BC) – the Father of Medicine. Hippocrates was a Greek physician who advocated the use of many medicinal plants and herbs in the healing process.
  • Pedanius Dioscorides (40 – 90 AD) – a Greek botanist and physician who wrote De Materia Medica. De Materia Medica was an ancient pharmacopeia widely used until Medieval times. It was a historical record of Greek, Roman and other ancient civilizations’ use of medicinal plants.

  • Galen (129 AD – 200/216 AD) – a Roman physician and philosopher. Galen helped people understand the science behind anatomy, pharmacology and philosophy.

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