The Gattefossé Legend Revisited

Dec 1, 06:05 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

It's a story repeated in every beginner aromatherapy class and retold in most popular aromatherapy books:

It's 1929. Chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé is toiling late at night in a lab and suffers a horrible accident, severely burning his hands in an explosion. In a panic, he does what any other human being would do and plunges his hands into the nearest container of liquid, which happens to be a vat of lavender essential oil. Moments later, he withdraws his hands and is amazed that he feels no pain and his burned skin is neither blistered nor red. He is flabbergasted by this miracle and decides then and there to dedicate his life to studying essential oils and their medicinal effects. He decides to call his discovery aromathérapie. Voilá! An industry is born.

I've always thought this oft-repeated tale sounded like too much of a fairy story, and it turns out I was right.

Gattefossé was a career chemist working at his family's French chemical company, which is still in existence today. Although steeped in scientific tradition, he was keenly interested in metaphysical subjects and intrigued by potential psychotherapeutic applications of essential oils. He was by no means ignorant of the medicinal applications of essential oils, either, as research and discussion in this area was well established in the European scientific community for some 40 years prior to the publication of Gattefosse's Aromathérapie (1937).

René-Maurice Gattefossé did indeed fall victim to a laboratory accident in which he burned both hands. Aware of lavender's benefits in burn treatment, he dressed the injured area with lavender essential oil and bandages repeatedly over several weeks' time. Gattefossé observed the progress of his healing and kept meticulous notes in a diary. His recovery was neither miraculous nor instantaneous. It was, however, very successful.

He did dedicate a great portion of his career to studying the therapeutic benefits of essential oils, and he was responsible for giving a lasting name to an industry which had already existed, in one form or another, for hundreds of years.

My thanks go to Robert Tisserand for setting the story straight several months ago in a post made to the American Herbal Products Association listserve on Linked-in. In his post, Robert included a blog link with direct quotes from Gattefossé's diary, which I have not included because that link is no longer working.

Gattefossé, René-Maurice. Gattefosse's Aromatherapy, English language edition. 1993. C.W. Daniel Company, Ltd: Essex, England.



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