The History of Plant Use and Essential Oil Extraction
There are thousands of years of wisdom recorded regarding the use of plants and essential oil extraction. Over time the plant wisdom of each corner of the world progressed and came together to become what it is today.
Many suggest that the Egyptians were the first to extract plant essences. They used plant extraction of aromatic herbs in their religious traditions, cosmetics and also medicinally.
Aromatic essence and resins were extensively used in the embalming process. Many believe that their extraction of essence was by means of a version of the enfleurage extraction method. The Mesopotamians had refined the distillation means such that the Egyptians through their interactions with them, also became familiar with the process. The oldest distiller known, which included traces of cedar wood oil, has been found at Tepe Gawra, dating as far back as 3,500 BC.
China and India
Around 2700-2600 B.C.E. during the reign of the Yellow Emperor, the Chinese also made use of herbs and plants. The emperor compiled a book that contained the use of several plants which is still used in eastern countries.
The Greeks recorded the Egyptian knowledge and medicinal wisdom of the Egyptians. The top physician, Hippocrates (c.460 – 377 BC) had an extensive knowledge of plants and believed in treating holistically including aromatherapy massage for treatment.
The Romans continued the medicinal wisdom of the Greeks and were great believers in hygiene to promote health and also placed great stock in aromatherapy and the power of fragrances. A Greek by the name of Galen also had a vast knowledge of plants and categorized them in his “Galenic” system which is still known today.
The Dark Ages
There is a period in history where a vast majority of the world’s libraries were burned (many accidental and many possibly instigated), technologies were lost, diseases spread, social structures broke down, many groups migrated, and the public halls of knowledge reduced.
During this time, the monasteries still kept the knowledge of many Latin writings. The monks took care of the sick and used herbal medicinal wisdom during these years. However, private village herbalists use was shunned and they were persecuted and referred to as witches.
Across the globe, prominent western institutions frowned on Chinese bathing techniques as sinful during this same time and therefore also led to less usage of holistic healing techniques. Herbal essences use settled down to be more for aromatics and to keep body odors in check and less frequently for deeper health issues such as for fungus, viruses and bacteria.
The holistic views of Hippocrates also all but disappeared during the dark ages due to institutional intolerance with people of science, poets and other non religious mindsets.
After the Dark Ages the Arabian empire reintroduced plant knowledge. Ali-Ibn Sana (Avicenna the Arab) wrote books on numerous plants. He is also accredited with perfecting distillation techniques and the official recording of the method of essence extraction.
During the Renaissance the holistic treatment of illness became widespread again thanks to the works of key physicians like Paracelsus (Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim 1493 – 1541). The crusades impacted the Renaissance. Frankincense and pine were burned in the streets during the Bubonic Plague. It was noted that less people died of the plague in those areas. In 1653 Nicholas Culpeper wrote his “The Complete Herbal” which is still a valued reference document today. He again looked into the wisdom of folk medicine and did not discount the its knowledge as unimportant. Because of this, he was highly criticized by his associates. With perseverance though, he ultimately proved his method with great success for healing including with curing successes with leprosy.
The Aztecs where expert herbalists. In 1552, during the Spanish rule of Mexico, two Native American students at the College of Santa Cruz in Tlaltilulco by the names of Martinus de la Cruz and Juannes Badianus, compiled a translated book of Aztec text known as, “Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians”. It is housed in the Vatican Library and is Americas oldest known herbal record. Lewis and Clark made a documentation of herbs which are now in an herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. During their expeditions they kept record of their use of a number of plants for food, medicine and other uses. At the end of the expeditions they had journal entries of 260 plants, 1/2 of which where new to science.
Since the 17th Century a drive to see and replicate the chemistry behind nature has lead to a more scientific approach to health.
Dr Edward Bach, a consulting physician during the 1930’s who was trained as a pathologist and bacteriologist became disenchanted to orthodox medicine and developed his own method of treating disorders. He looked at the whole patient being treated. He relied on gut feel and intuition rather than medical practice and thereby produced great results during his tenure.
The term aromatherapy was first coined in 1937 by the French chemist and perfumer Rene Maurice Gattefosse. He was not a believer in natural health remedies but was interested in essential oil properties.
A small explosion occurred in his laboratory in 1910 where he burnt his hand badly. He quickly immersed it in the nearest liquid available. The liquid was said to be undiluted lavender oil and to his astonishment he healed with no infection or scarring.
He studied further how oils are absorbed and interact with the body chemistry. He introduced lavender use to many French hospitals. During the outbreak of influenza, those same hospitals credited the lack of reports of deaths to using lavender oil with their patients.
Marguerite Maury, an Austrian born biochemist became interested in the effects of essential oils on the nervous system and well being of people. She also looked into the uniqueness of each person. In the 1930s she developed her Tibetan based massage technique which is applied to the nerve areas along the spinal column.
Since the 1970’s and early 80’s the use of essential oils has grown in popularity to “a choose easy way” of supporting health.
Over half of the world population lives in underdeveloped areas of the world, being mostly located on the African, Asian and parts of the South American continents. In Ghana their life expectancy is 15 yrs less than the USA including an infant mortality rate which is 8 times that of those in the USA. Yet their deaths are 5% less likely to be disease related compared to the USA. This suggests that Ghanaians are healthier.
The World Health Organization estimates that about 80 percent of Ghanaians use herbal remedies as their primary healthcare. Lack of access, high cost, and perceived side effects of synthetic drugs have formed this preference in that country. The cultural disposition and traditional beliefs of Ghanaians actually lead them to shun western medicine which they call “white man’s poison”.