Study of Aromatherapy: Art or Science?


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Avicenna and Distillation

The Egyptians were early alchemists and users of essential oils. Image credit: ISP

The most famous of the alchemists to come out of Arabia was perhaps Avicenna, or Ibn-Sina (980 – 1037 AD). Avicenna was a physician, alchemist and philosopher who studied many things in his lifetime.

However, his greatest achievement was the invention of the refrigerated coil, a vital part in improving the crude distillation process for plants, established by the ancient Egyptians.

This basic form of distillation is still used to produce essential oils for aromatherapy today.

Medieval Herbology

The Middle Ages was a time in which many aromatic herbs and plants were used medicinally, and natural oils and perfumes were used in many ways. The Middle Ages produced such names as:

  • John Gerard (1545 – 1612) – an English herbalist who recorded the use of medicinal plants in his book the Herball.

  • Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654) – an English physician who wrote about the use of essential oils, plants and remedies in the book The English Physician.


Science and Perfumery Merge

During the Renaissance period (14th to 17th centuries), natural perfumery, the use of essential oils, and distillation flourished, particularly in France. Italian native Catherine de Medici ( 1519 – 1589), wife of King Henry II of France, brought her own alchemist and knowledge of plants and scents to France when she married. She was a major influence in establishing the city of Grasse as a world class center of perfumery, advocating the use of many native plants in the use of natural perfumes.

Queen Marie Antoinette of France (1755 – 1793) was another French queen who saw the value in aromatic plants and oils, engaging the services of a full time perfumer, Jean-Louis Fargeon, to make up a vast array of natural plant oils for her specific needs.

The properties and uses of essential oils began to be recorded by pharmacists, and eventually the science of alchemy gave way to modern day chemistry. The science of essential oils began to be investigated in a logical and deductive way, disregarding the previous integration of philosophy, religion and other such notions.

The scientific revolution of the early 19th century saw the first recordings of individual chemical components of essential oils. This allowed scientists to produce synthetically-engineered copies of nature’s oils, a practice which ironically led to discrediting the medicinal value of the source of the synthetic materials, and increased the promotion of artificial materials. In turn, this led to the concept that aromatherapy was nothing more than a pleasant fragrance.

Gattefosse and Modern Day Aromatherapy

However, French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse (1881 – 1950) gave some credibility back to the therapeutic properties of true essential oils during an experiment in his laboratory in 1928. During the course of one of his experiments into the study of the individual chemical components of essential oils, he accidentally burned his hand. He placed it into a vat of lavender oil nearby, which helped prevent the scarring that a severe burn might have caused. Gattefosse is generally accredited with the birth of modern day aromatherapy.

Other modern day pioneers in the world of modern day aromatherapy include French doctor Jean Valnet and Austrian biochemist Marguerite Maury, who contributed to the validity and research of the therapeutic properties of true essential oils in aromatherapy practice. Dr Valnet used thyme (Thymus vulgaris), clove (Syzygium aromaticum), and lemon (Citrus limon) essential oils to treat the wounds and burns of soldiers during World War II.

Today, the science of aromatherapy is once again gaining recognition as scientists continue to investigate and breakdown the chemical components of individual essential oils and their therapeutic properties in aromatherapy.


The Twisted History of Alchemy: Alchemists, Ancient and Modern (2011). The Economist. Accessed December 11, 2012

Feydeau, E. de, A Scented Palace. (2006) UK: I.B. Taurus & Co. Ltd

Keville, K., Green, M. Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art. (2009). US: Crossing press

Lawless, J. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. (1995). UK: Element.

Price, S. Aromatherapy Workbook. (2000). UK: Thorsons.

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