Dr. Isabella Abbott: The First Lady of Limu

Dr. Isabella Kauakea Yau Yung Aiona Abbott, affectionately known as “Izzie” to her loved ones, paved the way for Hawaiian women in the field of science. She dedicated herself to preserving the history and traditions of her native land that were at risk of being forgotten and became a leading expert in the study of seaweed and algae, giving us a deeper understanding of ocean life. Through her achievements, Dr. Abbott has inspired generations of Native Hawaiians and women of color to pursue careers in science, empowering them to make their own contributions to the world.


Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian.

Early Life

Born in Hana, Maui, in 1919, seaweed has always played an important role in Dr. Abbott’s life. Her Kanaka Maoli mother taught her the traditional importance of seaweed, or “Limu,” showing her daughter how to collect it and use the algae to cook traditional Hawaiian meals. This, along with her rich heritage and deep love for the environment around her, inspired Dr. Abbott to study algae and its impact on the ocean’s ecosystem.


Changing the World, Both Above Land and Underwater

Dr. Abbott obtained her Ph.D. in botany from the University of California Berkeley in 1950, becoming the first Native Hawaiian to earn a doctoral degree in science. She made history again by being appointed as a tenured professor in the biological sciences department at Stanford University, becoming the first woman and person of color to hold this position. Her students remember her fondly for introducing them to new recipes using limu, which even earned her a feature in Gourmet magazine in 1987.


She retired from Stanford in 1982, moving back to Hawai’i with her husband. She became a professor at the University of Hawai’i, one of her alma maters, and created an ethnobotany major to help advance Hawaiian knowledge.


A Legacy Built on Algae

Dr. Abbott’s passion for limu led her to become one of the world’s leading experts in marine algae. Through her research, she greatly expanded our scientific knowledge of Pacific marine life, discovering over 200 species of algae. However, her work was not limited to just cataloging these species; it was also about comprehending the intricate connections between ecosystems, cultural practices, and conservation efforts.


Dr. Abbott became renowned as the “first woman of limu.” She worked with elders to preserve the history and knowledge of the ocean and became a crucial advocate for the safe and ethical cultivation and harvest of Hawaiian algae. Thanks to her, significant Hawaiian history has been preserved and is being studied at universities, building upon the more than 200 texts that she wrote on seaweed and algae during her lifetime.


Her work continues to influence fields beyond biology, including nutrition, medicine, and environmental policy, demonstrating the interconnectedness of all scientific disciplines.


Isabella Aiona Abbott passed away in 2010 at the age of 91, leaving behind a legacy of appreciation for nature and a dedication to giving back to our communities.


Find her recipe for seaweed cake from The Smithsonian.