“Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across a thousand miles and all the years we have lived.” – The Importance of the Sense of Smell by Helen Keller.
Perfume as Medicine
One of the first books I ever bought on the topic of herbal medicine was The Fragrant Pharmacy by Valerie Ann Worwood. This classic text and its subsequent volumes is not only a wealth of information about the myriad of uses of essential oils, it also goes to great length to describe the history of perfume as medicine.
The interplay between perfume and medicine goes way back. Since time immemorial, herbalists have used fragrant essences and oils for the purpose of healing. Ancient Greek pharmacological literature details the preparation of perfumed garlands and wreaths for hangover induced headaches, and apothecary notebooks from the times of the plague include recipes for fragrant salves to smear under the nostrils, and incense for dispersing the “bad air” believed to be responsible for the transmission of disease.
Unlike our modern GPs, physicians in the days of yore were very keen indeed on smelling their patients. An unpleasant smell was a sure sign of illness, and inhaling the odours of various bodily excretions such as urine or breath, helped them formulate a diagnosis and predict the direction an illness might take. Ladies were considered to be particularly smelly (having more opportunity to exude excretions in the form of breast milk or menstrual blood,) and were therefore an excellent target market for the perfumers of the day.
I’ve lately become very interested in attars. These traditional Persian preparations are oil based fragrances which are prepared by cold rolling fresh plant material in stone troughs, or obtained by steam distillation in copper stills. The use of alcohol for extraction is prohibited, as it’s believed to destroy the soul of the plant. In addition, perfume used as medicine isn’t meant to be wafted around to all and sundry, but prescribed for one’s own personal use. Physicians recommend it be applied to the ridge of the right ear in order to directly influence the nerve pathways – a habit I’ve now also adopted!
Many of these traditional attars contain extortionately expensive ingredients. Secret family blends can contain up to 40 different ingredients that are all distilled together. Many of these heirloom family formulas can be traced back to ancient healers. In some parts of the world it’s still customary to offer an attar to guests on their departure. The precious oils are sometimes given in tiny, crystal cut bottles called Ittardans, and are probably the forerunners of the elaborate packaging we see in today’s modern perfumes.
Essential Oils and “Smell Blindness”
Using aromatic oils for medicines certainly isn’t a thing of the past. It’s recently come to light that certain odours trigger responses in the limbic system which regulates mood and emotion. Ongoing research to investigate the use of essential oils such as Lily of the Valley and Frankincense to help improve conditions like Alzheimer’s, Dementia and Amnesia is based around the fact that our sense of smell is intimately linked with areas of the brain connected to memory.
It’s estimated that 700,000 people in the UK alone are believed to have total smell loss caused by the Covid-19 virus, with around six million still experiencing some olfactory dysfunction. Anosmia, (or as it’s more commonly known “smell blindness”) is now so prevalent, sufferers are using oils to help retrain their olfactory nerves through the use of smell training kits.
Kits can be purchased here at the clinic, and include four distinct aromas which should be inhaled twice daily for a minimum of four months. More information about the latest research into loss of smell can be found here.
It’s clear there are many diverse applications for oils and perfumes, and we’re only just discovering the potential of this fascinating field of medicine. Personally, I find essential oils and fragrant blends to be an invaluable addition to my own dispensary. If you’re keen to delve deeper into this topic, check out this webinar hosted by The British Society for the History of Pharmacy, or why not come along to my next workshop, and join me on a trip into the enthralling world of medicinal perfume.