Editor’s note: Dr. Abbott passed away Oct. 28, 2010. Memorial service information to be announced. Read the news release.
Isabella Aiona Abbott is smitten with seaweeds. The world-renowned algae taxonomist and University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa ethnobotany professor emerita never met an alga she didn’t like…well, excepting Gracilaria salicornia and Hypnea musciformis.
Introduced species, the first smothers Hawaiʻi’s reefs. The second, known as hookweed, damages native algae.
Meet Izzy Abbott in this video by the UH Mānoa Office of Student Equity, Excellence & Diversity. Watch the video.
“I love seaweeds,” she enthuses, “but those two creep around in places they should not be, and hookweed drags limu kala down into a ball so the tide takes it up on the beach where it dries up. That’s not a hospitable way for a visitor to behave.”
Limu kala, Abbott will tell you, is probably the most important seaweed in Hawaiʻi. “People eat it, turtles eat it. And kala means ‘to forgive.’ It’s used in purification ceremonies like ho’oponopono (the Hawaiian reconciliation process), or if you’ve been sitting with a dead person, or if you’re going on a dangerous journey.”
Considered the foremost expert on central-Pacific algae, with more than 100 research papers and numerous books to her credit, Abbott has amassed a long list of honors.
She received the 1997 National Academy of Sciences Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal for excellence in published research on algae. She has been recognized by the Botanical Society of America, was the first Native Hawaiian woman to receive a PhD in science and was the first woman on the biological sciences faculty at Stanford University, where she taught for 30 years.
In Hawaiʻi, the Honpa Hongwanji named her a Living Treasure. “That moved me the most,” she says, “because it’s for your contribution to your community.”
Born in Hāna, Hawaiʻi, to a Chinese father and Hawaiian mother, Abbott was the only girl and second youngest in a family of eight siblings. Her father had immigrated to Hawaiʻi at age 18 to work on the Kīpahulu sugar plantation. Five-plus years later, he had completed his contract, paid back his recruitment expenses and opened a thriving general store and learned to speak fluent Hawaiian.
“I had to learn Hawaiian because my parents would talk to each other at home and I couldn’t understand what they were saying,” Abbott confesses.
Her romance with seaweeds started around the time her parents moved the family to Honolulu. “My older brothers had to go to high school, and the only high school on Maui—Lahainaluna—well, there was no way you could get to Lahaina from Hāna in those days,” she explains.
Along Honolulu’s south shore, and during summers spent in Lahaina where her grandmother lived, Abbott and her younger brother searched for limu under her mother’s direction. “When you’re looking for seaweeds, you’re not drowning or doing crazy things in the water, so my parents were happy to take us to the beach,” she recalls with a chuckle.
Her mother knew the Hawaiian names of almost all the edible species. Those she didn’t know, she called ʻōpala (rubbish).
“Hawaiians ate seaweed raw. It was cleaned and pounded and salt added as a preservative,” says Abbott, an accomplished cook. “It was massaged to release the flavors. That’s where you get lomi salmon. Many older Hawaiians, myself included, eat limu by itself because we like it. It has vitamins and minerals. Today, people think all limu taste alike, or yuck. We’ve moved to a cuisine that uses it more as a pickle.”
Ogo (the Japanese name for the genus Gracilaria) is blanched and marinated. Limu kala, on the other hand, can be dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried, “like a taro chip. Very tasty,” she adds.
“My mother wasn’t happy that the seaweed I picked as my lifelong favorite was a real ʻōpala alga—Liagora,” confides Abbott. “It’s calcified. You can’t eat it. It’d be like putting sand in your mouth.”
Abbott finds ancient algae fascinating. The enigmatic dinosaurs of the plant world reveal evolutionary reproductive methods, body-forms and other secrets under her knowledgeable scrutiny.
“They’re magic for me,” she says. “And once you preserve and stain them blue or lavender, they’re beautiful filaments on the microscope slide.”
Abbott’s passion for botany was fueled during her years at Kamehameha School for Girls. She remembers growing and harvesting beans to feed 150 girls for dinner. Every Wednesday afternoon, her seventh-grade class worked in the flower gardens, where the plants were labeled.
“That was the first time anybody told me that the scientific names meant something, just like the Hawaiian names meant something.”
“Izzie has a tremendous memory,” says friend and retired University of Hawaiʻi–West Oʻahu Professor of Natural Science Lynn Hodgson. “That’s what you need for this kind of work.”
More than 200 algae owe their discovery and scientific names to Abbott. Several species have been named after her, along with an entire genus—Abbottella, which means “little Abbott.”
Abbott’s Hawaiian name, Kauakea, means white rain of Hāna, and her Hawaiian roots run deep. A quilt passed down from her grandmother hangs on her dining room wall.
“After (Hawaiian Queen) Liliʻuokalani was deposed, all the ladies whose husbands lost their jobs because of the overthrow got together to make this,” she explains. The quilt displays (Hawaiian King) Kalākaua emblems and four Hawaiian flags, which were banned at the time. “It says, ‘you can’t tell me I can’t have a Hawaiian flag,’” she declares. “I have four.”
At 90-years young, Abbott still frequents her UH Mānoa office. She also serves on the Bishop Museum Board of Directors, the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advisory committee for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
“I named the NOAA research ship Hiʻialakai,” she says with pride. “I kept thinking of little reef fishes that poke around here and there, and that’s what this ship does, poke around.”
She also used the name to christen a new alga species hiʻialakaiana; translation: embracing or searching the pathways of the sea.
Just like Abbott herself.
Read more about limu
Hawaiian Reef Plants, a University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant book by Abbott, John M. Huisman and Celia M. Smith.
Support Abbott’s legacy
The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of Botany has established a fund to honor Professor Abbott by supporting graduate research in Hawaiian ethnobotany and marine botany. (A minimum of $35,000 is needed to establish an endowment.) Donate online.
Video: Meet Isabella Abbott
A Diversity Matters at Mānoa video.