Isabella Aiona Abbott, PhD

2011 University of Hawai‘i Founders Alumni Association Lifetime Achievement Award

BA in Botany, 1941, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
MS in Botany, 1942, University of Michigan
PhD in algal taxonomy, 1950, University of California at Berkeley

Isabella Kauakea Aiona Abbott was a UH Mānoa ethnobotany professor emerita who was known worldwide as a gifted algae taxonomist.

Abbott was the first person of Hawaiian ancestry to earn a PhD in science and was the first woman on the biological sciences faculty at Stanford University, where she taught for 30 years. She was the preeminent marine botanist of the Pacific region for more than 50 years and was considered the foremost expert on central-Pacific algae.

Her love of limu went back to her childhood. Born in Hāna, Hawai‘i, to a Chinese father and Hawaiian mother, Abbott was the only girl and second youngest of eight siblings. Along Honolulu’s south shore, and during summers spent in Lahaina, Abbott and her younger brother searched for limu under the direction of her mother, who knew the Hawaiian names of almost all the edible species.

Now, more than 200 algae owe their discovery and scientific names to Abbott. Several species were named after her, along with an entire genus – Abbottella, which means “little Abbott.” A dedicated scholar and prolific writer, she published more than 170 research papers, books and technical reports, and gave generously of her time in service to numerous organizations in Hawai‘i.

Abbott received the 1997 National Academy of Sciences Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal for excellence in published research on algae. She was also recognized by the Botanical Society of America, was named a Living Treasure by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai‘i, and received the University of Hawai‘i Distinguished Alumni Award in 1994.

Until her death on Oct. 28 at the age of 91, Abbott had still frequented her UH Mānoa office and served on the Bishop Museum Board of Directors, the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advisory committee for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The UH Mānoa Department of Botany has established a fund with the UH Foundation in her honor to further graduate research in Hawaiian ethnobotany and marine botany. Click here to donate online.

To learn more about Abbott, please see “Pioneering professor is first lady of limu” in the October 2010 issue of Mālamalama magazine.