Edmond Albius was born a slave but became an important figure in cultivation of vanilla. Albius was born in St. Suzanne, Reunion. His mother, a slave, died during his birth, and he never knew his father. Albius was adopted by his master, Féréol Bellier Beaumont. At the young age of 12, Albius invented a technique for pollinating vanilla orchids quickly and profitably. Albius’ technique revolutionized the cultivation of vanilla and made it possible to profitably grow vanilla beans away from their native Mexico.
French colonists brought vanilla beans to Reunion and nearby Mauritius in the 1820s with the hope of starting production there. However, the vines were sterile because no insect would pollinate them. In 1830, Charles Morren a professor of botany attempted to develop a method of hand-pollinating vanilla but failed. In 1841, Albius discovered how to quickly pollinate the vanilla orchid with a thin stick or blade of grass and a simple thumb gesture. With the stick or grass blade, field hands lift the rostellum, the flap that separates the male anther from the female stigma, and then, with their thumbs, smear the sticky pollen from the anther over the stigma.
In 1848, France outlawed slavery in its colonies, and Albius left the plantation for St. Denis, where he worked as a kitchen servant. Albius was later convicted and sentenced to 10 years in jail for stealing jewelry, but the judge reduced his time because of his great contribution of vanilla. Albius method for vanilla is still used today.