A Campaign to Recognize Isabella Abbott’s Enduring Legacy

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Renowned as the “first lady of limu,” Dr. Isabella Kauakea Yau Yung Aiona Abbott blazed a path for the representation of women of color and Kānaka Maoli in the biological sciences.

She was the first Kanaka Maoli woman to receive a Ph.D., the first Kanaka Maoli faculty member at Stanford, and she was instrumental in establishing the ethnobotany major at the University of Hawaiʻi. During her career, Abbott published more than 150 articles and eight books. She is credited with discovering over 200 species, and for meticulously cataloging cultural uses of limu and Hawaiian medicinal plants. She received numerous awards and commendations including the Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal for Excellence and was named a Living Treasure by the Honpa Wangwanji Mission.

Abbott, known fondly as “Izzie,” was born in Maui to a Chinese father and Kanaka Maoli mother. Her father came to Hawaiʻi as a plantation worker but opened a store after completing his contract. He spoke fluent Hawaiian and loved his adopted country. Her mother gave Abbott the Hawaiian name, Kauakea, after the rains of Hāna.

From her maternal grandmother, Abbott received a quilt made to protest the illegal “Provisional Government.” The quilt included royal emblems and four Hawaiian flags – all symbols banned by the new regime. Abbott would display this quilt on the wall of her home for the rest of her life – not only to remind her of her grandmother, but of aloha ʻāina.

Abbott’s family moved to Honolulu due to educational opportunities. At the time, many Hawaiian practices were being lost as some sought to assimilate in order to survive. However, her family wanted to ensure their knowledge was passed down. During summer vacation, the family returned to Maui and spent time at Abbott’s grandmotherʻs house in Lāhainā. There, her mother taught young “Izzie” and her brother the names and uses of edible limu.

Abbott attend and graduated from Kamehameha Schools for Girls. She then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in botany at UH Mānoa, a master’s degree in botany from the University of Michigan, and a doctorate in botany from the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1950, she moved to California with her husband, Dr. Donald Putnam Abbott, a respected zoologist at Stanford. A decade later, she began teaching at Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford and her skills were so impressive that in 1971 Stanford made her a tenured professor in biology.

Students remember her warmth, hospitality, and her cooking skills. She frequently tried new recipes using limu. Her most famous recipe was “seaweed cake.” She was even featured in Gourmet magazine in 1987 for her love of cooking with limu.

After retiring from Stanford in 1982, Abbott and her husband returned to Hawaiʻi where she began teaching botany at UH. She worked to create an ethnobotany major to help advance Hawaiian knowledge. She collected oral histories and went through archival material to understand Kānaka Maoli cultural and culinary uses of limu.

Abbott bore witness to the flowering of the Hawaiian Renaissance which celebrated Hawaiian culture after so many decades of suppression. Her research on limu, coral reefs, and medicinal plants helped to bridge western science and Indigenous knowledge, contributing to the renaissance. Despite her achievements, Abbott always credited her work to her kūpuna.

She was also active in the community. Abbott co-wrote Broken Trust the seminal essay that brought reform to Kamehameha Schools. She served on the board of the Bishop Museum and was a commissioner on the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission.

More than a decade after her passing in 2010, a student/faculty/community-led campaign has formed to rename the Life Science Building at UH Mānoa “Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott Hall.”

The campaign can be followed on Instagram (@abbott.hall.uhm) and Twitter (@abbotthalluhm). Advocates pushing to rename the building have collected over 2,000 signatures in support of “Abbott Hall” and have held various events on campus to raise awareness of the legacy of this Kanaka Maoli botanist.

Fewer than 4% of the buildings at UH Mānoa are named after Kānaka Maoli. Since the university claims to be a place of Hawaiian learning, students argue that there must be more Kānaka Maoli representation at UH – including building names. The Associated Students of the University of Hawaiʻi recently approved a bill in support of the new name and the proposal will go before the Board of Regents.

The enduring impact and legacy of Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott is profound. She was a brilliant, pioneering Indigenous female scientist who was able to pierce the oppressive educational, social and political barriers of racism and sexism that suppressed the advancement of so many others in that era. Her achievements will be remembered and celebrated for generations to come.