Isabella Aiona Abbott: First Lady of Limu

By Julia Lee Gosser, Amy Sahud

May 8 2023

Before Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott became the first Native Hawaiian woman to receive a doctorate in science, before the 150 journal articles and 8 books, before she was named the First Lady of Limu, she was a young girl collecting seaweed on the shores of Honolulu with her family. Limu is a Hawaiian word that refers to edible underwater plants, like seaweed and other forms of algae. Isabella’s mother could identify any variety of limu that grew near their home, and after collection, together they would prepare a wide array of limu-based dishes. Growing up with this passion for the connection between limu and people and its essential role in ecosystems, Abbott became one of the most prolific algae botanists in history, describing over 200 species and contributing invaluable knowledge and wisdom to the field.

Abbott received her undergraduate degree in botany from the University of Hawai'i in 1941, a master’s degree in botany from the University of Michigan in 1942, and a Ph.D. in algal taxonomy from the University of California, Berkeley in 1950. In 1966, she was hired as a research associate and lecturer at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. It was not until 1972, when Stanford began to reevaluate the absence of women in its professional roles, that Abbott was directly promoted to full professor of Biology. As a Chinese and Native Hawaiian woman, she was the first woman and first person of color to hold this position there.

Her passion for marine algae went beyond her professional role as an educator. She was a dedicated ethnobotanist, authoring articles devoted to the ethnobotany of seaweed and books such as Lā’au Hawai’i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants  and Limu: An Ethnobotanical Study of Some Hawaiian Seaweeds. She even led an annual seaweed pickling event, and regularly brought seaweed based dishes to share at work events. In 1982, she moved back to Hawai’i, where she was hired at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa to teach ethnobotany. She taught there until her passing in 2010.

As algal scientists today continue to research the essential role of seaweeds in marine ecosystems, especially in the wake of climate change, Abbott’s foundational work continues to illuminate the many stories of limu in our world.