Essential Oil Heritage: Rene-Maurice Gattefosse and Aromatherapy
Rene-Maurice Gattefosse (1881-1950) was born into one of France’s most important chemical and perfumery families. His father, Louis, founded the Gattefosse Group in Saint-Remy de Provence in the south of France in 1880. R. Gattefosse’s keen scientific mind led him to study chemistry, and he excelled in developing perfumes and scents.
Gattefosse joined with a large group of scientists in 1907 to investigate and publish studies on the properties of aromatic substances.
Researchers had long concluded that essential oils had the ability to neutralize germs. Doctors Chamberland, Cadeac, and Meunier published their research in the Annales de l’Institut Pasteur in 1880 and 1881.
What set Gattefosse apart from other essential oil researchers was his vision. Robert Tisserand wrote: “Not one of his predecessors, during the thousand years since the invention of distillation, had seen that the therapeutic application of essential oils constituted a discipline in its own right.”1
Today, aromacologists and essential oil devotees owe the existence of the very word “aromatherapy” to this dedicated French chemist, for he is the one who coined this term.
Gattefosse’s understanding of the therapeutic value of essential oils came first and foremost at his own experimentation. In July of 1910, Gattefosse was in a terrible lab accident. He fled the laboratory literally aflame. Rolling on a grassy lawn, he extinguished the flames but later wrote, “Both my hands were covered with a rapidly developing gas gangrene.” He did not “accidentally” plunge his arm into a strategically placed vat of lavender essential oil. Gattefosse had been studying essential oils in earnest for three years at that point. He knew the healing power of lavender and immediately resorted to this jack-of-all-trades essential oil. In his book, Aromatherapy, he wrote: “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.'” 2
And what better healer is there than the plants of Mother Nature? Gattefosse wrote that from time immemorial, “Aromatic plants have always been considered the most effective treatment for the diseases afflicting mankind. In many cases, the essential oil is used, which is evidence that the volatile part is the most effective.” 3
During the great influenza epidemic of 1918, Gattefosse prepared a composition based on “essences containing borneol and, in particular, sage essence.” He noted that volatile antiseptics were indicated in such a serious epidemic because influenza is transmitted primarily via the respiratory tract: ears, nose, eyes, and mouth. Again, writing in his book, Aromatherapy, Gattefosse stated, “Preventative treatment consisted of gargles and nose, eye, and ear drops, as long practiced in hospitals housing contagious patients.”4
Gattefosse developed the idea that essential oils had psychological effects and that an interplay between different oils resulted in a powerful synergy. Anyone who has used Gary Young’s essential oil blends Thieves®, Purification®, or Aroma Siez™ can agree wholeheartedly!
As the father of aromatherapy, Gattefosse wrote of his beloved essential oils: “Besides their antiseptic and bactericidal properties widely used today … essential oils possess anti-toxic and antiviral properties, have a powerful vitalizing action, and undeniable healing power and extensive therapeutic properties.”5
Rene-Maurice Gattefosse advanced the new science of aromatherapy and opened the door for thousands of peer-reviewed studies of these marvelous oils.
2. Ibid 87.
3. Ibid 32.
4. ibid 83-84.
5. Ibid. xii.