He Lei Hiwa, Dr. Isabella Kauakea Aiona Abbott (1919-2010)

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By Benton Kealii Pang, Ph.D.
Benton Kealii Pang with Dr. Abbott. – Photo: Courtesy

Last March I was invited to a student conference reception at the University of Hawai‘i which honored Dr. Isabella Kauakea Aiona Abbott. Several events, like this conference, were organized in 2019 to celebrate the centennial of this Hawaiian female scientist, her research achievements, the conservation initiatives she established in Hawai‘i and her efforts to preserve Hawaiian cultural traditions. Who is Dr. Abbott you ask?

Known as the “First Lady of Limu,” Dr. Abbott took the teachings from her ‘ohana into the classroom and scientific literature. She was born in Hāna, Maui with kūpuna who taught her not only how to make Hawaiian food and pick limu, but also how to catch Hawaiian birds. After moving to O‘ahu at the age of two, she attended Ali‘iolani School, graduating from the Kamehameha School for Girls in 1937. She then graduated from UH Mānoa, and later pursued graduate degrees from Michigan State and UC Berkeley.

Dr. Abbott was the first Native Hawaiian to earn a Ph.D. in science, and the first minority hired in the Biological Sciences Department at Stanford University. While at Stanford she published more than 200 new species of algae culminating in the monograph Marine Algae of California, which remains one of the most important books on marine algae along the Pacific Coast.

I was a graduate student of Dr. Abbott’s from 1989-2003. At the time, she was a well-known ethnobotanist and a world-renowned phycologist (algae/limu expert). She was the first female to be appointed the G.P Wilder Endowed Chair in Botany, a board member at the Bishop Museum, and she sat on numerous panels and committees because as she put it, “who else at the university holds a tenure track position, is female and native Hawaiian?” Dr. Abbott was highly sought after by university administrators and students alike, and she was always looking for ways to attract more Hawaiians into science. Her introductory ethnobotany course attracted hundreds of local students every year. Her classes were filled with science and mo‘olelo, Latin binomial names, and anecdotes from her family, especially of her grand uncle, a traditional bird catcher.

Dr. Isabella Kauakea Aiona Abbott – Photo: Courtesy

As a commissioner for the revitalization of Kaho‘olawe, she was instrumental in doubling the plant life on the island since its demilitarization. She also spent a decade as a commissioner for NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. In both these positions she balanced her scientific knowledge and decades of experience as an educator with her life-long knowledge of Hawaiian culture.

At the student conference I mentioned earlier, two of her former graduate students spoke. One was Dr. Celia Smith, who studied under Dr. Abbott at Stanford University. I was the other speaker and I was honored to share the legacy this kupuna left for us with the next generation of Hawaiian researchers. And seeing the number of Hawaiian women of science receiving doctorate degrees and teaching at the university, I know Dr. Abbott would be extremely proud.

Eia ho‘i ka pua laha‘ole [here indeed is the incomparable descendant] He lehua mamo o uka [a golden lehua mamo of the uplands] He lei hiwa o nā kūpuna, [a choice wreath of the ancestors] ‘O Isabela kou inoa [Isabella is your name] – “Lei Hiwa” na Hokulani Holt Padilla, June 2001.