The Tea Tree received its modern name from Captain James Cook in 1770s. He had landed in Australia at Botany Bay (near modern day Sydney) and was making a trek northward through New South Wales, accompanied by botanist Joseph Banks. There, it seems, they took notice of large groves of trees that had sticky yet aromatic leaves.
The native Bundjalung Aborigines informed Captain Cook that they used the leaves of these trees to speed up the healing of cuts and wounds, and make a poultice for the prevention of infection – and they and had been doing so for centuries! The also boiled the leaves it to make a fragrant, spicy tea, which is why Captain Cook dubbed it the Tea Tree, Melaleuca alternoifolia.
They had other uses for it, too. For skin ailments, they would crush the leaves and soak them in water to make an infusion body wash. They would place the leafy branches over a fire people with coughs and other respiratory issues to inhale the resulting vapors. The Bundjalun aborigines would also crush the leaves and hold them under the nose, or use the leaves to make a pillow.
It would seem that the Tea Tree was forgotten for many years, at least until 1923. That year Arthur R. Penfold, an Australian chemist, began to study it. The oil from the leaves of the tea tree was pale yellow in color and had a strong fragrance to it. Upon testing, he estimated the antiseptic action of Tea Tree oil to be 12x that of carbolic acid.
During World War II, a severe outbreak of foot fungus among Australian soldiers fighting in World War II was hospitalizing hundreds. Nothing seemed to get it under control, until a medic remembered something. This medic was Aborigine and was familiar with Tea Tree oil. He quickly obtained some, began covering the men’s feet in it, and the foot fungus was killed within days.