understanding therapeutic grade essential oils and their benefits


Forgotten – Essential Oils and the US Government’s Little Known Role – Essential Oils During the Past Century Part III

What was happening in America with essential oils during the time when the Gattefossé brothers were discovering their therapeutic benefits?  The first Pharmacopeia in America was published by the Medical Society of Massachusetts in 1808, followed by  the very first United States Pharmacopeia, published in 1820.  The idea of a National Pharmacopeia was first proposed when Dr. Lyman Spalding  submitted the idea to the Medical Society of the County of New York.  The founding U.S. Pharmacopeial convention was held in Washington D.C. for the purpose of creating a system of standards and a National Formulary.  Essential oils were included in these works.

At the time René-Maurice Gattefossé applied lavender oil to the severe burns he suffered in a lab explosion, a number of essential oils  had been in regular use by U.S. doctors for more than a hundred years.  At that time, the United States Pharmacopeia was revised every ten years. During the first hundred years oils were included as individual pure volatile oils with directions for steam distillation, as important components for medicated waters, medicated spirits, liniments, ointments and other compounds.  About 10 oils were included in the 1808 Pharmacopeia of Massachusetts.  A few of the less common oils would come and go but overall the number of oils climbed over the years, peaking in 1890 with around 44 oils mentioned.  However, by this time, synthetic and artificial forms of wintergreen were included, and the 1900 version included several more synthetic forms and isolated components of volatile oils. By 1910 the number of individual pure distilled oils had tapered off to about 35 while synthetic and artificial versions and isolated components continued to increase. Later, the publications of the United States Pharmacopeia and the National Formulary were joined into one volume and published annually.

In 1900, Congress transferred 400 acres of the historic Arlington estate in Virginia to the Secretary of Agriculture for use as a general experimental farm. The Pentagon is now located on this site. This became one of several sites where the U.S. Government conducted what they referred to as “drug plant investigations”, which would continue for more than 50 years, managed by the Bureau of Plant Industry which was established in 1901.  The U.S. Government was in fact growing medicinal plants for research purposes, and among The Bureau of Plant Industry’s other projects studying various crops, farming methods, plant diseases and so forth, the project for drug plant investigations specifically included a number of experimental stations, ranging from botanical gardens to small farms used for the cultivation of aromatic plants, which they steam distilled to produce essential oils. Some were researched for perfume, fragrance, and food flavorings, while others were recognized by the government for their medicinal and therapeutic properties. Several government reports and bulletins were published mentioning details of cultivating aromatic plants for producing essential oils, and the methods and equipment for distilling them.

In 1906, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt with the Pure Foods and Drugs Act, which prohibited interstate commerce in foods or drugs which were misbranded or adulterated. While the law was intended to protect the consumer from unnecessary and potentially harmful additives to foods and drugs, the FDA sometimes had their own way of regulating this.  One of the early problems they sought to solve began in 1907 with the certification of food colors. Merchants had begun a practice of injecting foods with dyes to enhance their appearance and make them more appealing to the consumer, and to cover up defects.  Dyes were also added to drugs.  Some of these dyes were quite harmful and so the FDA, instead of forbidding the practice of adding these chemical dyes, they decided they would screen them all and certify which ones could be used.  In 1928 they certified more than 600,000 pounds of dyes permitted for use in foods and drugs. (The Arlington Experiment Farm, U.S. Department of Agriculture Handbook for Visitors, 1928). This was thought to be a great improvement because the certification rules were so strict.

Dyes were then also added to cosmetics and the practice of using FDA certified dyes continues today.  A huge list of these dyes which the FDA has removed from the list or added further restrictions due to safety issues and problems discovered after they had been in use for some time may be found on the FDA’s Color Additive Status List.  The FDA collects substantial fees for color additive certification which are regulated under Title 21 Code of Federal Regulations Section 80.10  They get paid by the pound for these certifications and just in the quarter from Oct 1- Dec 31 2015 certified more than 6 million pounds of dyes added to foods, drugs, and cosmetics.  In recent years, the safety of dyes remaining on the FDA’s approved list has come into question. The Global Healing CenterCenter for Science in the Public Interest,  Dr. Oz and Dr. Mercola are just a few who warn of the dangers of several dyes the FDA still allows.

The more extensive Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. This law required FDA approval before any new drug could be brought to market, and also prohibited false therapeutic claims.  Through the years, the FDA has developed a very broad interpretation of this law which includes prohibiting therapeutic claims that are true, and by defining any random product as a drug if you intend to use it for something they consider a disease.  This also includes a long list of words which could be associated with various diseases.   For instance, if you use something to help with inflammation or joint pain, in the eyes of the FDA that product is likely to be considered to have become a drug.  In 2010 for example, the FDA sent a warning letter to Diamond Foods declaring that their walnuts had become drugs due to therapeutic claims they had on their website based on extensive scientific research.  The FDA collects substantial Application, Product, and Establishment Fees for each new drug. In addition, Product and Establishment Fees are assessed annually.  In 2014, the most recent year for which a financial report is available, the FDA collected more than $796 million in prescription drug user fees. 45 new drugs were approved by the FDA for 2015.  FDA approved drugs, used as prescribed, are, according to their own website the 4th leading cause of death in America. 

Meanwhile, in 1939, the work of the Arlington Experimental farm was transferred to the Research Station at Beltsville, Maryland.  By 1952, the Bureau of Plant Industry had a 14,000 acre Agricultural Research Center at this location with 2100 employees, of which more than 900 were scientists. Experiments on growing aromatic medicinal plants and distilling their essential oils were still being conducted at this time.  The next year, 1953, the Bureau of Plant Industry became part of the Agricultural Research Service, (ARS) which continues to the present.    Both the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Agricultural Library are filled with peer reviewed clinical studies which have been done on various medicinal and therapeutic uses of essential oils.  Some of these studies are done by ARS scientists.  The interest in scientific research on essential oils and the growing body of evidence that they do have valuable therapeutic uses continues to expand despite the FDA’s proclamation that only a drug (approved by them, and at great expense paid to them) can be used to prevent, treat, cure, or mitigate a disease.

Unfortunately, the essential oil research and experiments conducted by the U.S. Government were little known and mostly buried in obscure government reports and bulletins which few average citizens had access to, or took the time to wade through them if they did.  With the development of the pharmaceutical industry, the major focus became isolating active compounds of various essential oils believed to be responsible for medicinal effects, and creating synthetic versions which could be approved  by the FDA as new drugs.  Synthetic versions were also often used for food additives and flavorings, as well as for perfumes and fragrances.  Thus, despite the government’s role, the essential oil industry in the U.S. was following a very different path than the one in France influenced by the research René-Maurice Gattefossé.   Pure essential oils were very scarce in the U.S.  Their therapeutic properties were largely forgotten, and the  development of aromatherapy would take many decades before finding its way to the U.S.

Next:  The Research of Dr. Jean Valnet








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.




If this information has been helpful, you may make a small donation to help defray the costs of research.  Thank you!
These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and this information is for educational purposes only and not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.



The Real Story of René-Maurice Gattefossé – Essential Oils During the Past Century Part II

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.

If this information has been helpful, you may make a small donation to help defray the costs of research.  Thank you!

These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and this information is for educational purposes only and not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.