Many who have tried to have find information online about essential oils may have heard something about René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist who used lavender essential oil when he suffered severe burns in his lab. As has been pointed out by Robert Tisserand, who edited the English version of Gattefossé’s book, the story has become somewhat embellished on may blogs and websites from the original version given by Gattefossé himself, though true in the main points. A few other details have been mentioned, such as the fact that Gattefossé was the first to use the word “aromatherapy” and wrote a book about it. Yet most accounts seldom explore the matter further.
Who was René-Maurice Gattefossé, and why did he have lavender essential oil in his lab? Born in 1881 in Lyon, France, he was the third child born to Louis Gattefossé, who founded Gattefossé Establishments in 1880. The business of Gattefossé Establishments was to produce essential oils, petroleum oils, raw materials for making perfumes, and other drugstore products. Thus René-Maurice had spent literally his whole life immersed in a world of essential oils and fragrances. As his older brothers joined the family business, he was soon to follow, attending the University of Lyon and obtaining his degree in chemical engineering.
An older brother, Robert, who had studied mechanical engineering, was deeply involved in the research of essential oils, devoting special study to the aromatic plants of southern France and the island of Corsica, where he had completed a term of military service. He provided his observations to his brothers, which was instrumental in influencing René-Maurice and another brother, Jean, who was a botanist and chemist.
In 1907, when René-Maurice was 26, Louis Gattefossé retired from the business and the brothers took over, forming a partnership with their mother called Gattefossé & Sons. René-Maurice’s oldest brother Abel managed the administration and trade aspects of the business while the other brothers continued to research aromatic plants, their chemistry and various properties. Later that year, the President of Agricultural Unions Southeast requested René-Maurice to research the production of in Haute-Province, as picking wild lavender was not able to produce sufficient quantities to meet the demand. He was asked to launch a series of conferences and begin calculating the value of lavender cultivation and begin organizing plantations and distilleries. The campaign was very successful, increasing both the quality and prices of lavender, and boosting the Gattefossé business due to improved conditions for local families and workers. It was during this time René-Maurice learned to isolate the aromatic molecules of the essences and also first began to realize the therapeutic properties of lavender.
The brothers established a European journal of perfumery in 1908 called “La Perfumerie Moderne” of which René-Maurice was editor in chief. It was quite popular and translated into several languages. 1910 was an eventful year in which Louis Gattefossé died. In the earlier part of 1910 René-Maurice spent time traveling to other parts of Europe to investigate the distillation of other aromatic plants. The company also expanded its trade to Indonesia, China, and Japan. On July 25, 1910, the day his son Henri-Marcel was born, René-Maurice was working in his lab when an explosion occurred. Of this he wrote, “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.” Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy, 1937.
Gas gangrene is a potentially life threatening medical emergency which may cause death within 48 hours. It is most often caused by the bacteria Clostridium perfringens, which can infect a wound or injury. The onset of infection occurs quite suddenly and generally spreads so rapidly that drastic changes may be observed in the skin within just a few minutes.
Meanwhile, Robert Gattefossé had also married, and welcomed the birth of his son Abel, named after his oldest brother when World War I broke out in July 1914. He had to rejoin his command in the Eastern Marshes. René-Maurice, despite being very near-sighted, served also and was assigned to the 109th Territorial Infantry as a motorcyclist. He was the first of the brothers to be wounded in 1915 at the front in Artois and was sent home to support the war effort as a chemical engineer. He was also able to resume is post as editor in chief of La Perfumerie Moderne. Abel was killed in action in 1916. Robert after a year and a half of service in most unhealthy districts, developed swamp fever and a serious liver condition. He spent almost two years in various hospitals being treated, continuing to work on his writing and authoring an important work, Perfumery Throughout the Centuries. Robert did not recover, however, and died from his war caused illnesses in 1918, leaving his younger brothers to carry on his research as well as their own. René-Maurice and his younger brother Jean published an article in the Chemist and Druggist, and reprinted in The National Druggist, Vol 52, January 1922 discussing “The Medicinal Use of Essential Oils”.
Over the next several years, the Gattefossé company continued to diversify, adding product lines for cosmetics, synthetic perfumes, insecticides, veterinary dressings, and more. In addition to this work, René-Maurice continued to write books and articles on the therapeutic uses of essential oils, attracting several doctors to collaborate in this research. It was at some point during these years that he first began using the word “aromatherapy”, which was a new concept in the use of essential oils. His son Henri-Marcel, joined the company in 1932, having also studied chemical engineering. The Gattefossé company began forging relationships with physicians, developing pharmaceuticals as well as cosmetics and personal care products.
René-Maurice published his classic work Aromathérapie in 1937 which was the culmination of his essential oils research, and included clinical observations by several doctors. He wrote a second edition of this work in 1942, but it was never published as antibiotics had gained prominence by that time. In the late 1940s he purchased some property near St. Denis, intending to cultivate such aromatic plants as rosemary, thyme, and lavender, creating a botanical garden for the distillation of pure essential oils with no pesticides. His last book, Formulary of Perfumery and Cosmetology was first published in 1950, not long before his death. René-Maurice died suddenly in 1950, while visiting his brother Jean in Casablanca, Morocco. His son Henri-Marcel kept the Gattefossé business which still continues today as a family run company with a presence in 60 countries around the world. Next – Part III will look at essential oils in the United States and the little known role of the U.S. Government in essential oil research and production.
To learn more about different therapeutic grade essential oils and how they may help support a healthy lifestyle, please visit The Oil Well.
For more information on the leading essential oil companies, their history, testing, and quality standards, check out the 45 page Young Living/DoTerra report.
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