The Temperament of Essential Oils: Book Review
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The Temperament of Essential Oils: Book Review

The English abridged translation of Portraits in Oil: The Personality of Aromatherapy Oils and Their Link with Human Temperament, by Philippe 
Mailhebiau (1995), is an elegant book. Mailhebiau personifies the temperament of twenty-four essential oils (EO) using old-world poetic proses and allegory. One comes to know these oils through legend, mythology and religion. At times, the book reads like a novella, luring one into the botanical history, properties and synergy of each of the oils. In this version Mailhebiau pays homage to the ancient origins of aromatic medicine. 

It is written that the unabridged French version encompasses modern clinical methodology, toxicology and the physiology of olfaction. It compares aromatherapy to homeopathy and biochemistry. It includes gas chromatograms and data sheets for thirty-one EO. Both books, the collaborative efforts of pharmacists, botanists, biologists and chemists studying several thousand essential oils for the Institut Scientifique d’Aromatologie. 

Mailhebiau acknowledges that he has left out the methodology of clinical aromatherapy from the abridged version because it would be in conflict with the narrative style of the book. Does he purposely keep the details of clinical aromatherapy inaccessible to the general public for another reason? He is of the French school of aromatherapy, which is differentiated from the British and German schools. The French school is distinguished by clinical research on the use of EOs via many routes (inhalation, topical, oral, per rectally etc).  In the French school, medical professionals have used volatile oils as high pharmacy. Mailhebiau writes, 

“Aromatherapy is inappropriately and imprudently presented as innocuous. Essential oils are tricky to use and if such use is poorly tailored to the needs of the patient concerned, it can be accompanied by serious side effects. Some essential oils, even the best-quality ones, can become harsh poisons in improper dosage… Aromatherapy is not innate knowledge but a specialized medical field, and only a few basic remedies can be used by everyone with the utmost guarantee that they are totally safe…Whilst one may, if necessary, resort to the use of certain essential oils”. 

Never-the-less,  Mailhebiau does discuss some methodology in the abridged version. For instance, sometimes he indicates when an EO is best used externally and which are best used internally. He is more precise than any other source I’ve read as to the uniqueness of plant botany: species, chemotypes, cultivars and parts used to produce a therapeutic EO. He writes extensively on the indigenous habitats and cultivation of these plants. Both the latter are particularly important when choosing among the various types of the more commonly used EO like lavender, peppermint, rosemary and thyme. 

I did not find this book in a bookstore.  I came across the used abridged version on Amazon. All hints of the existence of the unabridged French language version proved elusive. Amazon says Mailhebieau is an aromatherapy classic. Yet I have never seen him rightfully cited along side the older or modern aromatherapy classics. I did not find any information about the scholar himself. An Internet search did not yield any information on the Institut Scientifique d’Aromatologie either. 

Why did Mailhebiau and the Institut Scientifique d’Aromatologie vanish from the archives of aromatherapy? Why is the unabridged version of this book not translated into English? Did he write any other books or publish any research? Is he anonymously still contributing to the evolution of clinical aromatherapy? The more experienced aromatherapists whom I contacted could not answer my questions either. How could I continue to cite from a lovely book whose author I question the very existence of? 

Years later, I finally found proof of the existence of this gentleman and his ongoing dedicated work at le site de Phillipe Mailhebiau. This book is beautifully written and translated. It is dense and not to be read casually.  But it will become a favorite to those exhausted by the science, bored with the anecdotal or frustrated with formats that lack passion for the Art of Aromatherapy. Perhaps Mailhebiau’s truest intent when writing the book.


Mailhebiau, P. (1995). Portraits in oils: the personality of aromatherapy oils and their link with
     human  temperaments. Saffron Walden: C W Daniel Company.

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