How Did Aromatherapy Originally Get Its Name?

During the earlier part of the 20th century, a French chemist by the name of René-Maurice Gattefossé became interested in essential oils for their medicinal properties. Previously, he focused on the aromatic use of essential oils in perfumery application, but his interest in their therapeutic use grew after an accident heightened his curiosity. While working, he burned his arm rather badly. By reflex, he plunged his burned arm into the closest liquid which happened to be a large container of lavender essential oil. The burn he suffered healed quickly and left no scar. He attributed his remarkable healing to the Lavender Essential Oil, and that lead to his ongoing study of essential oils.

It is Gattefossé that is credited with coining the term aromatherapy in 1928 within an article where he supports the use of using essential oils in their whole without breaking them down into their primary chemical constituents. In 1937, Gattefossé wrote a book called Aromathérapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones végétales that was later translated into English and named Gattefosse’s Aromatheraphy.. It is still in print and widely read.

Gattefossé certainly had no idea 70 years ago that aromatherapy would become the field it is today and that the term that he genuinely meant to refer to a natural healing modality would be snatched up and misused as a marketing buzzword.

Should Aromatherapy be Renamed?

Robert Tisserand, the an English aromatherapist who was responsible for being one of the first individuals to bring knowledge and education of aromatherapy to English speaking nations, has written several books and articles including the highly respected 1977 publication The Art of Aromatherapy. The Art of Aromatherapy was the first aromatherapy book to be published in English.

I recall a lively correspondence that I enjoyed with Mr. Tisserand several years ago regarding the confusion over the term aromatherapy. In brief, we both agreed that the term is confusing and does not fully capture what the field is all about, and we shared our comments over the dilemmas in changing the name of this valuable holistic field. Though there is agreement amongst many that the term aromatherapy is misleading, little has been able to be done to solve the dilemma. We cannot magically snap our fingers and instantly change the term aromatherapy to something immediately accepted by all and that doesn’t frequently draw clouded assumptions.

The dilemmas that exist include the following:

  • Common agreement does not exist on what single word or brief phrase would clarify what holistic aromatherapy entails.
  • What body would be given the authority and would hold the confidence by those in the field and society in general to officially decide upon a new term?
  • How would that body be chosen?
  • The phrase aromatherapy has been in use for over 70 years. In its translated derivatives, is a term that is used worldwide. How would the field go about reducing the confusion that would certainly occur during the long transitional process of converting from the term aromatherapy to another term?
  • Instead, would there be a secondary term used by the holistic aromatherapy field to distinguish products and or ingredients as meeting the requisites of the field?
  • Would this name change be imposed just on the United States and/or English speaking nations or would it be adopted by other countries, like France, in which the term is much more clearly understood?


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