Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott
Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott, originally Isabella Kauakea (White Rain of Hana) Yau Yung Aiona was the first Native Hawai’ian woman to earn a PhD in science. She was born on June 20th, 1919 in Hana, Maui to a Native Hawai’ian mother and Chinese father, Abbott was the only girl and second youngest in a family of eight siblings. Her father had immigrated to Hawaiʻi at age 18 to work on the Kīpahulu sugar plantation. Five-plus years later, he had completed his contract, paid back his recruitment expenses and opened a thriving general store and learned to speak fluent Hawaiian.
Abbott spent much time during her childhood learning about different kinds of edible seaweed. She would often go with her mother to the seashore to collect seaweed and use it to cook traditional Hawaiian dishes while learning fluent Hawai’ian. Her love of seaweed and algae would only grow from here. She would soon become the world’s leading expert on Hawaiian seaweeds or Limu. Abbott was one of the world’s foremost authorities on limu, or the more than 70 edible varieties of seaweed. Her work won Abbott the accolade “First Lady of Limu.”
Abbott believed Limu Kala was one of the most important seaweeds in Hawai’i.
By the age of 31 she had a PhD in botany from the University of California Berkeley and became the first Native Hawaiian woman to earn a doctoral degree in the field of science. She became a lecturer in the Biology Department of Stanford in 1960 and in 1971 Abbott became the first woman on Stanford’s biological sciences faculty all while also being a mother. Over the span of her career she won many awards, including the Darbaker Prize and a Lifetime Achievement Award, and authored eight books and over 150 research papers. She has been credited with discovering over 200 different algae species and had many of these named after her, including a genus of the red algae family which is called Abbottella or “little Abbott.”
In 1976, she wrote Marine Algae of California, which Dave Epel, professor emeritus of biology at Stanford, characterized as “the definitive description of marine algae along the Pacific coast.” In 1982, she and her husband retired to Hawai’i, where Abbott joined the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and taught Hawai’ian ethnobotany. Thanks to her work, the university created a bachelor’s degree in this subject.
The National Academy of Sciences honored Abbott with its highest award in marine botany, the Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal, in 1997. Abbott was named a Living Treasure of Hawaii, and she was given the opportunity to name a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration research ship, the Hi’ialakai. Abbott continued working at UH Manoa until her death in October 2010 at the age of 91.
This is a woman who followed her passion and, in the process, made progress for future generations. Abbott’s her legacy continues to inspire many.