“In 1910 French chemist and scholar René-Maurice Gattefossé discovered the virtues of the essential oil of lavender. Gattefossé badly burned his hand during an experiment in a perfumery plant and plunged his hand into the nearest tub of liquid, which just happened to be lavender essential oil. He was later amazed at how quickly his burn healed and with very little scarring. This started a fascination with essential oils and inspired him to experiment with them during the First World War on soldiers in the military hospitals.”

If you’re in the aromatherapy biz, you are probably familiar with the story. The above version appears, word-for-word, on several websites, and the same basic tale on many. I’m fascinated by the appearance of “In 1910” in the story which, although true, is quite a recent development. There’s only one original source of that date: Monsieur Gattefossé, but whoever wrote the above clearly did not read Gattefossé’s own account. Ah well, that’s how it goes with rumours.

The story is basically correct, apart from the instinctual plunging of the hand into the nearest available liquid, which is total fiction. Anyway, who leaves large containers of lavender oil lying around unlidded? Certainly not a perfume chemist like Gattefossé.

Gattefosse IJA picIt’s remarkable how the mythical aspects of the tale have continued, long after the publication in English, in 1993, of his 1937 book Aromathérapie (by the way, this was the first appearance of the word “aromatherapy” in print). Yes, he burned his hand in his laboratory and yes, he treated it with lavender oil, but this was not a eureka-like, lucky-chance moment. It would be great if it was true. Translated from French, this is Gattefossé’s own description of the incident, and this is all he has to say about it:

“The external application of small quantities of essences rapidly stops the spread of gangrenous sores. 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 (July 1910).”

His application of lavender oil was clearly an intentional act, and the result impressed him greatly, and possibly saved his life. It was a special moment for him, and for aromatherapy.

Gas gangrene is a potentially fatal infection, and was the cause of many amputations and deaths in the First World War. Although traumatic gas gangrene is rare today, 25% of those who contract it still die. It is caused by infection of a wound, most commonly by Clostridium perfringens. Onset is rapid and dramatic (though it normally takes 1-4 days from the time of infection), with bacterial toxins causing tissue death and subcutaneous swelling and gas. Sweating is one of the early symptoms of infection. Since the bacterium is most commonly found in soil, Gattefossé’s rolling in the grass might have precipitated the infection.

While the incident did not initiate his study of aromatherapy, it was certainly a strong hint – a definite push in a direction he was already headed. Subsequently he collaborated with a number of doctors who treated French soldiers for war wounds using lavender and other essential oils. The accounts of these cases constitute a large part of his text.

Microbiological research shows that a number of essential oils are active against strains of Clostridium perfringens including winter savory (Satureja Montana) lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) lemon tea tree (Leptospermum petersonii) and tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). Some of these are being given to factory-farmed chicken, which are susceptible to Clostridium perfringens-related disease. The essential oils don’t have the same drawbacks as antibiotics.

No-one has yet tested lavender oil against Clostridium perfringens, although we do know that lavender oil can inhibit the mechanism (known as quorum sensing) through which bacteria “decide” to release their toxins. Gattefossé’s use of lavender oil was not so much a happy accident as an instinctual success. It also helped make him famous, and we still remember the incident 101 years later. Serendipity, however you look at it.

De Oliveira TL, De Araújo Soares R, Ramos EM et al 2011 Antimicrobial activity of Satureja montana L. essential oil against Clostridium perfringens type A inoculated in mortadella-type sausages formulated with different levels of sodium nitrite. International Journal of Food Microbiology 144:546-555

Gattefossé R-M, Tisserand RB (ed.) 1993 Gattefossé’s aromatherapy: the first book on aromatherapy. CW Daniel, Saffron Walden, p 87

Shanmugavelu S, Ruzickova G, Zrustova J et al 2006 A fermentation assay to evaluate the effectiveness of antimicrobial agents on gut microflora. Journal of Microbiological Methods 67:93-101

Szabó MA, Varga GZ, Hohmann J et al 2010 Inhibition of quorum-sensing signals by essential oils. Phytotherapy Research 24:782-786

Wannissorn B, Jarikasem S, Siriwangchai T et al 2005 Antibacterial properties of essential oils from Thai medicinal plants. Fitoterapia 76:233-236