Pioneering professor is first lady of limu

October 21st, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Cover Story, Features, Multimedia  |  8 Comments

Editor’s note: Dr. Abbott passed away Oct. 28, 2010. Memorial service information to be announced. Read the news release.

scientist in her laboratory

Isabella Abbott at 90 years young, in her laboratory.

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.

video icon 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.”

limu kala seaweed

Limu kala, probably the most important seaweed in Hawaiʻi.

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.”

portrait of a smiling Isabella Abbott


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.

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  1. Matthew Sharritt says:

    October 22nd, 2010at 3:52 am(#)

    I developed a related website with Dr. Cynthia Hunter (Looking at Limu) that might be of interest:

    Great story!

  2. Atete E. Holbrook says:

    October 23rd, 2010at 3:26 pm(#)

    Dear Isabella,
    Pe hea oe? Olele Hawaii i ke wale no au. But I am learning. My father is Tahitian/Hawaiian, American Indian. Mother Italian, that’s it. But I grew up on Kauai, Tahiti and Big Island.
    I think you are wonderful! I am so keen on re-writing our Hawaiian language to be more authentic, like the old chants my great grandmothers left me. I think we should pay more attention to the plants of the sea and their applications to all areas of health. My mother is 89 and I take care of her with natural foods and vitamins. She walks well, and sees well. I am also interested in saving all the coconuts for the people of Maui to eat. It is our staple diet. I want to push the gov. into putting nets under all the coconuts instead of killing this food. I have worked with Kenneth P. Emory and the state in the late 70′s to map and protect ancient sites on the Big Island. He was very inspirational and so are you. I would very much like to speak with you to hear the way your parents spoke Hawaiian. I speak several languages and I believe our young people are having an identity crisis due to loosing Hawaiian language. I spoke briefly on channel 54 Maui about “Bringing Hawaii back to itself.” I listed an accelerated learning program for Hawaiian language, Food (coconut milk in schools),new land division, and better water use, letting our waterfalls flow. I have many practical solutions,learned through my travels in the Pacific/Australia regions. I am a graduate of U.H.M and U.H.H. I think it is wonderful your work with the University and it is a great school as they supported my travels to Nihoa to prove my theory. Turns out someone else took credit for my theory, on day I’ll let that cat out of the bag. However, my focus is helping my people, and preserving the good ol’ ways. It would be a great honor to meet you and hear Hawaiian spoken as it was before it got written up by the missionaries. I have some old chants in ancient Hawaiian from my family and they are a treasure to me. I have been struggling with this and not getting any help with writing old Hawaiian. It is deeply saddening to know that so few pure Hawaiian people are left, well below extinction. To say the Hawaiian people are extinct is true, but awful. But we can say the people of Hawaii are Hawaiians, just made up many cultures. What makes us one is our LANGUAGE. I feel strongly that we must now take Hawaiian language out of the classroom. What do you think? Would you be willing to help me translate a beautiful short story about Maui into an old dialect of Hawaiian?
    Atete Melelani Punahele Tanepuni Akapanuhi Akahi E. Holbrook is my full name chant.

  3. Cheryl Ernst says:

    October 29th, 2010at 2:58 pm(#)

    Mālamalama was saddened to learn of the death last night of Isabella Abbott. Our condolences to her family, students and colleagues.

    Information about services will be provided when it become available.

  4. Clifford Lum says:

    October 30th, 2010at 10:13 am(#)

    Aloha Kakou, I enjoyed your article on the late Dr Isabella Abbott in Nov.’10 Malamalama. 34 yrs. ago, thankfully, my choice to take a course for fun/out of curiosity resulted in Prof. Isabella lecturing us involved in Ethonobotony 105. Your article jarred my memory that she had recently returned to Hawaii from her employment at Stanford U. The course graciously exceeded all my expectations. I realize your focus of Dr. Abbott’s interview with your writer(magazine) was on algae/limu, an item which we obtained important info. as students, but for me the application of the knowledge and skills transmitted from Dr. Isabella is incorporated, I with confidence can claim, in how I live. Vocational activities resulting attending U. of Hawaii at Manoa, include working in business and currently as an educator in the DOE. A deeper appreciation for residing in Hawaii and in general, occupying anyplace on earth resulted in at least some of us, from what Dr. Abbott taught about and how people meet their needs with trees,and other plant/flora forms in our enviornment realized and reinforced by proximal flora, travelling forest trails and moving about the ocean. Acclamations and honors-involving careers at Stanford and then UH, NOAA, having her name as part of scientfic naming of plants to name a few, warranted her “Living Treasure In Hawaii” title. In closing, please indulge me for writing that whenever some occurrence, wording or presentation connects me having a college education, the image of Dr. Isabella’s class lecturing is what comes to mind for me initially most often. aloha, Cliff

  5. Campus Remembers 'First Lady of Limu' Isabella Abbott | News@UH says:

    November 12th, 2010at 4:30 pm(#)

    [...] Posted on | November 12, 2010 | No Comments [...]

  6. Dorothy Hall says:

    January 2nd, 2011at 3:05 pm(#)

    I had the pleasure of studying ethnobotany of Hawai’i with professor Abbott in my first semester at UH, fall 1977. She was an excellent teacher, and allowed me to miss a mid-term in order to travel to another island on the day it was scheduled. She was so warm-hearted to realize that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, and that I could always take the test later! She inspired me to research a paper on the production of tapa cloth, comparing methods in Tonga and Hawai’i. The many hours I spent in the Bishop Museum and the East-West collection at UH were so rewarding in that pre-computer era. I only regret that I did not get to tell her how much it meant to me to have known her, but now I must pass it on to the others who felt likewise.

  7. Margot Schrire says:

    January 21st, 2011at 12:09 pm(#)

    Prof. Abbott’s legacy is growing!

    UHAA just announced that she is the recipient of the 2011 UH Founders Alumni Association Lifetime Achievement Award. An award will be presented to her family May 12 at the Sheraton Waikiki during the Distinguished Alumni Awards Dinner

    More good news –
    Thanks to the outpouring of generosity, $28,000 has been raised in support of the Abbott Award for Graduate Research. The Dept. of Botany established this fund to honor Prof. Abbott by supporting graduate research in Hawaiian ethnobotany and marine botany. A minimum of $35,000 is needed to establish an endowment – so we are just $7,000 away for creating a legacy that will support graduate research for many years to come!

  8. spirulina says:

    April 22nd, 2011at 12:21 am(#)

    I wish Prof. Abbott all the best, I admire people who does so much good for the society.