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by Dr Vivian Lunny(more info)

listed in aromatherapy, originally published in issue 24 - January 1998


A historical background to aromatherapy may be found in many ancient cultures. Among these we can quote:

In Egyptian civilisation, we find that Immenohthep the famous architect of the Saqqarah Pyramid, Physician of the third Dynasty to Pharaoh Djoser, is said to have formulated his medicines from aromatic plants – among them aniseed and cardamom. Among the Greeks, Hippocrates, considered as the Father of Medicine, recommended the use of aromatics as food and medicine, as well as a fragrant massage everyday for good health. Galen, physician to the Roman Emperors contributed a great deal to the History of Pharmacology. The Galenics method of prescribing pays homage to its originator who 15 centuries ago provided a reference for the practising physician.

Around the year 1000 AD, Avicenna, a Persian poet, scholar, philosopher and physician wrote his Canon of Medicine and re-invented steam distillation.

R.M. Gattefosse, who is believed to have coined the term ‘Aromatherapie’ in 1937, was a chemist. His story is now an Aromatherapeutic legend. It appears that he burnt his hand while conducting an experiment in his laboratory and as a reflex action he plunged his hand into a nearby container with essential oil of lavender. Gattefosse found the pain was lessened and the healing process more pronounced from this application of lavender. A French physician, Dr. Jean Valnet, promoted the use of essential oils of rosemary and thyme as antiseptics and for the treatment of war wounds. After the first world war, he wrote various aromatherapy texts.

The scientific papers and books of Gattefosse, Guenther, Guildemeister & Hofman, Valnet and their disciples, confirmed the therapeutic value of essential oils.

In the early 1960s Marguerite Maury, a French chemist and cosmetologist, who had been exploring the regenerative properties of essential oils and the connection between aromatics and medicinal molecules, pioneered in England, the combined usage of essential oils, massage and other specialised techniques in cosmetology. Her book The Secret of Life and Youth is still one of the most respected aromatherapy books.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are produced by aromatic plants as part of their photosynthesis. Once produced, they are stored in specialised structures or pockets, distributed according to the botanical species. For example, in the leaves, in the case of mint (Mentha piperita); in the rind in the case of citrus oils such as lemon (Citrus limonum); in the petals as in essential oil of rose (Rosa centifolia); in the rhizomes as in essential oil of ginger (Zingiber officinale); in secretory cells located along the bark which produce a resinous secretion in the case of essential oil of myrrh (Commiphora myrrha); or distributed through more than one of these structures as in the exceptional case of bitter orange (Citrus auranthium), which produces three different types of essential oil: pettigrain from the leaves, orange from the rind, and neroli from the petals.

Essential oils give the plants their fragrance, help it to attract insects for pollination and protect the plant from attack by pathogenic bacteria or parasitic fungi. Essential oils or ethereal oils, are at the heart of the aromatherapeutic treatment. They are the fragrant, highly volatile liquids which are extracted from a single botanical source. Each molecule of essential oil is a unique combination of a large number of natural, organic chemical plant constituents in varying proportions. Among them we have mainly terpenes, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, esters, and phenol-methyl ethers in varying proportions which give each individual essential oil specific characteristics. The number of these constituents – as seen in a gas chromatography – may be around 200, including trace constituents.

What should one look for in an aromatherapy session?

During the first session the therapist will take a detailed personal history as well as a personal medical history and family history, all of which will allow for the correct formulation and choice of essential oils and methods of treatment.

The main aromatherapy methods of treatment are the following:
a)    Steam inhalations utilising the classic old fashioned method, consisting of a bowl of boiling water to which 4 drops of a blend of essential oils are added, while the client is asked to cover his/her head with a towel and inhale the steam. This method of treatment is very beneficial for sinus problems, dermatitis, headaches, and sore throats, among others.
b)    Hot or cold compresses where 3 to 5 drops of a blend of essential oils are placed, for example on the site of a spasmodic colicky pain, or on a swollen sprained ankle. (In the latter situation after a physician and X-rays have established that there are no fractures or major injuries present.)
c)    Aromatic baths with 2 to 3 drops of the oil blend added to the bath. This will help to reduce stress or benefit specific skin ailments.
d)    Specialised aromatherapy massage by qualified aromatherapy practitioners, where the prescribed blend is applied directly to the skin by professional massage techniques.
e)    Vaporising a blend of essential oils, where the blend is slowly evaporated in a special burner to create specific moods or to prevent the spread of airborne dis-eases, depending on the formulation of essential oils chosen for this effect.

Professional aromatherapy training

A good aromatherapy training course requires that prior to undertaking the study of aromatherapy, the student either already has relevant certificates confirming their knowledge of anatomy and physiology of all body systems; a knowledge of common ailments and their causes; first aid; counselling skills; and Swedish/ classical body massage, or covers these subjects as a part of the training.

Once the students have accomplished the above, they then move on to the aromatherapy course. These must include an in depth knowledge of base oils or carriers which may be cold pressed vegetable oils or lotions, and their specific beneficial effects on the skin; an in depth study of no less than 50 essential oils; the study of basic organic chemistry to understand the constituents of essential oils; basic botany in order to understand more readily the connection between aromatic plants and their effects; how to take a good case history; make the appropriate assessment; formulate and blend the required essential oils and base oils; provide a good, safe and pleasant treatment and look after their clients to optimum standards. The training should also include information on referrals and liaison with other complementary practitioners and with the Medical Profession.

A qualified aromatherapist in order to be able to practise must be a member of a professional association and be covered by Professional Indemnity and Public Liability insurance. Once qualified, Aromatherapists are able to practise either from Natural Health Centres, Private Aromatherapy Clinics, National Health Hospitals or as part of a General Practice Team.


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About Dr Vivian Lunny

Vivian Nadya Lunny qualified as an MD in 1973. She specialised in Cardiology and Pathology and obtained Postgraduate Diplomas in Holistic and Scientific Aromatherapy Colour Therapy. She was awarded a Doctorate in Alternative Medicine in 1991. She is the proprietor of Real Essences Aromatherapy & Leisure Ltd. and a well known international Aromatherapy and Holistic Medicine Educator and Facilitator.
She can be contacted at: R.E.A.L. Ltd. P.O. Box 58, Stevenage, Herts. SG2 8XR, England, Tel/Fax: 44 (0) 1438 357 357. E mail: or You may visit her Internet site at:


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