The Aromatherapy You Thought You Knew But Never Knew

Research Reveals The “Real Aromatherapy Story”

I’ve read nearly every book out there on aromatherapy, and been in the field for far over ten years. Yet, somehow I missed the fact that the aromatherapy history books had the story of the rebirth of aromatherapy all wrong.

For a particular story I was writing on Lavender oil, I was going over all my notes, and I was fact checking every detail of aromatherapy history when I stumbled upon a reference that stated that according to Robert Tisserand, the story of Gattefosse was incorrectly told. I went to and low and behold the true story was right there on his site.

The story of Gattefosse’s famous burn is like the story of the “fish that got away,” in which the fish keeps growing with each retelling of the story. It seems that the story of Rene-Maurice Gattefosse has grown in such a way that history has been rewritten. In 1937 Gattefosse published the book Aromathérapie in French. In 1993, it was published in English. In his book he tells the story of the famous burn that happened in his laboratory in his own words,

“The external application of small quantities of essences rapidly stops the spread of gangrenous sores.
In my personal experience, after a laboratory explosion covered me with burning substances which I extinguished by rolling on a grassy lawn, both my hands were covered with a rapidly developing gas gangrene. Just one rinse with lavender essence stopped “the gasification of the tissue”. This treatment was followed by profuse sweating, and healing began the next day (July 1910).”

In nearly every aromatherapy book the story is told differently. According to the myth, “In 1928 a French chemist by the name of Rene-Maurice Gattefosse rediscovered the healing properties of essential oils. While working in his family’s perfumery business an explosion severely burned his hand. He plunged his hand into the first liquid near him. That liquid turned out to be lavender essential oil that had been being used for its fragrance and for cosmetic purposes. He was amazed at how quickly his wound healed, without infection or scarring. As a result Gattefosse turned his scientific attention to the medicinal properties of essential oils and their benefits for skin conditions.”

In reality his treatment with lavender of his severe burn was deliberate. Gas gangrene is a serious bacterial infection which produces gases within the tissues in gangrene. It is a very deadly form of gangrene and in his time would have most likely have been fatal. The bacterium that causes gas gangrene can be found in soil. I agree with Tisserand’s belief that he probably came in contact with it when he “extinguished it by rolling on a grassy lawn.” Knowing the real story makes me even more impressed with the power of lavender. I have on many occasions poured lavender onto burns with amazing results. I have never witnessed the results of it on gas gangrene.

Gattefosse actually began to study essential oils in 1907 with a group of scientists. Although all accounts of his famous burn are in 1928, it was actually happened in 1910. He published his findings in his book Aromathérapie which was well received by others who went on to do their own research. Gattefosse first coined the term “aromatherapy”. Aromatherapy began as a medical therapy based on the pharmacological effects of essential oils. They were considered equally effective as the conventional pharmaceutical drugs. According to Gattefosse, aromatherapy was to be used to treat a symptom or a disease in the same way that conventional medicine did. He did not see a distinction between the two and believed aromatherapy to be an integral part of medicine. He was also aware of the psychological and neurological effects of essential oils.

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