Hippocrates (circa 460–377 BC) was the first physician to dismiss the Egyptian belief that illness was caused by supernatural forces. Instead, he believed the doctor should try to discover natural explanations for disease by observing the patient carefully, and make a judgment only after consideration of the symptoms.
His treatments would typically employ mild physio–therapies, baths, massage with infusions, or the internal use of herbs such as fennel, parsley, hypericum or valerian. Hippocrates is said to have studied and documented over 200 different herbs during his lifetime. He believed that surgery should be used only as a last resort and was among the first to regard the entire body as an organism. Therefore we have Hippocrates to thank for a concept fundamental to true aromatherapy – that of holism.
Founders of botany & pharmacology
After Alexander’s invasion of Egypt in the 3rd century BC, the use of aromatics, herbs and perfumes became much more popular in Greece prompting great interest in all things fragrant. Theophrastus of Athens who was a philosopher and student of Aristotle, investigated everything about plants and even how scents affected the emotions. He wrote several volumes on botany including ‘The History of Plants’, which became one of the three most important botanical science references for centuries to come. He is generally referred to today as the Founder of Botany.
The next great luminary was the Greek military physician Dioscorides (40–90 AD) who served in Nero’s army. In order to study herbs, Dioscorides marched with Roman armies to Greece, Germany, Italy and Spain, recording everything that he discovered. He described the plants habitat, how it should be prepared and stored, and described full accounts of its healing properties. His results were published in a comprehensive 5 volume work called ‘De Materia Medica’, also known as ‘Herbarius’.
This epic publication was the first ever systematic pharmacopoeia and contained 1000 different botanical medications, plus descriptions and illustrations of approximately 600 different plants and aromatics. His magnificent work was so influential he has been bestowed the accolade, the Father of Pharmacology.
Of gladiators and emperors
Perhaps the most brilliant and influential of all Greek physicians was Claudius Galen, who lived from 129–199 AD and studied medicine from the age of seventeen. He began his medical career aged 28 under Roman employ treating the wounds of gladiators with medicinal herbs. This unique experience provided him with the opportunity to study wounds of all kinds, and it is said that not a single gladiator died of battle wounds while under the care of Galen.
Due to his phenomenal success he quickly rose to become the personal physician to the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and since Rome was a thriving academic center during the lifetime of Galen it was the ideal place for him to conduct further research. Galen was the last of the great Greco–Roman physicians, and within 100 years of his death the Roman Empire would begin to decline, plunging Europe into the dark ages.
As the Romans began pulling out of Britain, much of their medical knowledge was discarded and all progress in the Western tradition of medicine came to a halt for hundreds of years. During this period, Europe sank into the lowest depths of barbarism recorded in history, and it would be the turn of another culture to carry the torch of aromatic medicine forward.
It was the Persians who next made the most enduring contributions to the knowledge of aromatics and medicine. Al–Razi (865–925) is considered one of Persia’s finest physicians, and during his lifetime he penned a phenomenal 237 books and articles covering several fields of science, half of which concerned medicine. Born in the town of Rayy near Tehran, Al–Razi was known in the West as Rhazes and he had an enormous influence on European science and medicine.
His most influential work was a medical encyclopedia covering 25 books called ‘AI Kitab al Hawi’, which was later translated into Latin and other European languages, and known in English as ‘The Comprehensive Work’. His medical accomplishments were legion, and he also developed tools such as mortars, flasks, spatulas and phials which were used in pharmacies until the early twentieth century.