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Isabella Aiona Abbott

In honor of #womenshistorymonth we dedicate this post to none other than Isabella Aiona Abbott.

Isabella Aiona Abbott (June 20, 1919 – October 28, 2010) was an educator, phycologist, and ethnobotanist from Hawaiʻi. The first Native Hawaiian woman to receive a Ph.D. in science, she became a leading expert on Pacific marine algae.

Born to a Hawaiian mother and Chinese father, Isabella spent much time during her childhood learning about different kinds of edible seaweed. She learned about its many uses, varieties, and Hawaiian names from her mother who learned from her mother whose mother lived during the times of the kapu system when women could gather limu but not eat ­or even touch ­taro. Isabella would often go with her mother to the seashore to collect seaweed and use it to cook traditional Hawaiian dishes.

Isabella grew up in Honolulu near Waikiki, and graduated from Kamehameha Schools in 1937. She received her undergraduate degree in botany at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in 1941, a master's degree in botany from the University of Michigan in 1942, and a Ph.D. in botany from the University of California, Berkeley in 1950. She married zoologist Donald Putnam Abbott (1920–1986), who had been a fellow student at the University of Hawaii as well as Berkeley. The couple moved to Pacific Grove, California where her husband taught at the Hopkins Marine Station run by Stanford University. Since at that time women were rarely considered for academic posts, she spent time raising her daughter Annie Abbott Foerster, while studying the algae of the California coast.

After completing her doctorate at the University of California-Berkeley, she studied algae along the California coast while her husband taught at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station because women were typically overlooked for academic posts. Her work later landed her a position as a research associate at Hopkins, where she also taught as a lecturer.

Over the next few years, Isabella would publish the first of eight books and more than 150 publications on marine algae, starting with the Monterey peninsula and later of the entire California coast and the greater Pacific Basin. In 1972, Stanford promoted her straight to full professor.

The “First Lady of Limu,” or Hawaiian seaweeds in the Hawaiian language, Isabella is credited with discovering more than 200 species of algae. Several are named after her, including the red algae genus of Abbottella.


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