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Modern Medical Evidence In 1931, with the publication of A Modern Herbal Mrs M. Grieve drew modern scientific knowledge and traditional folklore together for the first time into a comprehensive encyclopedia. In this pioneering work she describes over a thousand British and American plants, providing information on their exact botanical origin, cultivation, chemical and medicinal properties as well as their historical usage. Like the early herbalists, Mrs Grieve viewed lavender principally as a nervine, and she recommended the oil, rubbed on the temples, for mental depression, delusions and nervous headaches. However, she also drew attention to its powerful antiseptic and germicidal properties, for which it was gaining increasing recognition, especially in France:
Its use in the swabbing of wounds obtained further proof during the War, and the French Academy of Medicine is giving attention to the oil for this and other antiseptic surgical purposes. The oil is successfully used in the treatment of sores, varicose ulcers, burns and scalds. In France it is a regular thing for most households to keep a bottle of Essence of Lavender as a domestic remedy against bruises, bites and trivial aches and pains, both external and internal.
Indeed, the French have long been familiar with the benefits of lavender, and it is to France that one must look for the first scientific reports on the clinical use of lavender oil. During the First World War, applications of aromatic essences were common in a variety of civilian and military hospitals. In 1915 the French physician Menciere was treating war wounds using various compositions of essential oils, including lavender, due to their remarkable bactericidal and healing properties.
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Dr Jean Valnet, another wartime surgeon, commented on the antiseptic and cicatrizing (wound-healing) properties of essential oils, especially those found among the Labiatae family such as lavender, sage, thyme and rosemary. He noted that the antiseptic power of lavender was stronger than that of phenol, cresol or guiaicol, and that its vapour destroyed pneumococcus and haemolytic streptococcus in 12-24 hours. He also found that lavender essence killed the tuberculosis bacillus at a strength of 0.2 per cent, the Eberth’s bacillus (typhoid) and staphylococcus at 4.5 per cent, and Loeffler’s bacillus (diphtheria) at 5 per cent.2 Valnet recommended the administering of vaporized lavender oil in a 2 per cent solution for disinfecting sick rooms, clinics and operating theatres; he also expounded upon the anti-toxic, pesticidal, antispasmodic, sedative and emmenagogic properties of lavender.
But it was the French perfumer, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse (1881-1950) who did the most to draw attention to the potential of lavender oil during this period. Through his research work, Gattefosse had become increasingly fascinated by the numerous essential oil preparations used by the peasants and natives as folk remedies. The value of their traditional knowledge was validated when Gattefosse suffered serious burns to his hands in a laboratory explosion and found that simply by applying dressings of pure lavender oil, he was able successfully to heal the wound in a short period of time, and prevent scarring. After this encouraging result he devoted much of his time to exploring and promoting the therapeutic use of aromatics. In 1932 he published a paper in the journal Parfum Modern specifically on the antiseptic role of lavender, and in 1937 he published his two main works, Aromatherapie and Antiseptiques Essentiales. These books had a profound impact on the scientific establishment regarding the medical use of essential oils in general, and it is from Gattefosse that the modern term ‘Aromatherapy’ originated.