Isabella Aiona Abbott

The definitive guide to marine algae of the Pacific Coast of North America

Contributed by: Bridgette Clarkston     Twitter: @funnyfishes



Aquatic, Biodiversity, BIPOC, Ethnobotany, Field, Historical figure, Indigenous, Lab, Marine, Native Hawaiian, North America, Observational, Organism(s), Organismal biology, Plants, Species richness, Woman


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Hear from Dr. Abbott in her own words! Two recorded interviews

Ethnobotany of Limu, by the University of Hawaii (43 mins) 

PBS Hawai’i Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, interview with Isabella Aiona Abbott (27 mins) 



Slide 1: Researcher’s Background

Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott (1919-2010) was a pioneering plant biologist who has been called “The First Lady of Seaweed”. Izzy Abbott specialized in ethnobotany –  the study and documentation of how indigenous people incorporate native plants within their culture. 

Biography in brief

The following text is from an article by Healoha Johnston of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and Sara Cohen of Because of Her Story:

“Marine algae expert Isabella Aiona Abbott broke barriers during her long career as a scientist, author, and university professor. She is thought to be the first Native Hawaiian person to earn a PhD in science. She was the first woman and first person of color to become a full Professor of Biology at Stanford University. After teaching at Stanford from 1960–1982, she retired and pursued a second career as professor of botany at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Abbott established the University’s undergraduate major in Ethnobotany. 

Abbott strove to uncover historical uses for marine algae. She also found ways to reintroduce seaweeds into everyday life. She relied heavily on oral histories, often crediting elders in her work, to preserve what was quickly diminishing ocean knowledge. Her work led to university-level study of Hawaiian ocean knowledge. She also continued Hawaiian ocean stewardship practices through the cultivation and harvest of limu (marine algae).

Abbott wrote almost 200 texts about algae and seaweeds. To celebrate Abbot’s 100th birthday, the Bishop Museum, Hawaiʻi’s State Museum of Natural and Cultural History, republished her book, Lāʻau Hawaiʻi, Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants in 2019. In the book, Abbott writes that she aims to “demonstrate the vital link between the Hawaiian flora and the Hawaiian culture.” Today, several of her specimens are part of our National Museum of Natural History’s botany collections.  

Abbott enthusiastically sought to revitalize the relationship people have with natural ecosystems. One way of activating that connection is through the mindful consumption and utilization of plants all around us. That included bringing her seaweed cake to potlucks and sharing the recipe in her book Limu, An Ethnobotanical Study of Some Hawaiian Seaweeds.”

Is (or was) their research under-valued because of their identity?

Izzy Abbott broke many barriers and was extremely successful as a scientist, however, at the time of her career (mid-20th century), it was true that women, people of color, and indigenous peoples (Dr. Abbott was a member of all three groups) were commonly under-valued in western science and faced significant barriers to participating in science.


Slide 2: Research Overview

Take home message of Dr. Abbott’s work

At the time of publication (1976) Dr. Abbott’s guide book accounted for 98% of the known marine flora of California — an incredible feat for a single publication that has not been matched since. While the scope is the California marine flora, this book is the most comprehensive reference for seaweeds along the entire Pacific coast of North America, from Alaska to Mexico, and continues to be an essential reference for anyone studying seaweeds on this coast.

Study system

This is the cover of the most important book about the diversity of marine algae species on the Pacific coast of North America.  The book includes a description and hand-drawn illustration for 669 types of marine algae found along the coast of California. The cover, shown here, includes several examples of line drawings that are found in the book.


Slide 3: Key Research Points

Key figure

This photo shows a red seaweed specimen, collected by Dr. Abbott in 1965 in California, The sample has been dried and pressed onto paper. The scientific name for this seaweed species is Cryptopleura rosacea. Dr. Abbott was the scientist who first described this new species to science. 

The bottom right corner shows the information about the specimen: name, who collected it, when and where it was collected. The specimen is now part of the U.S. National Museum of Natural History’s collection. 

Societal Relevance

The examples given here show Dr. Abbott’s prolific work documenting and describing seaweeds — she is credited with discovering over 200 species of seaweeds and published over 150 scientific papers and several books in addition to the Marine Algae of California.   

Dr. Abbott’s scientific research documenting and discovering seaweed species provides the foundation upon which an enormous amount of subsequent work is based. She provided the baseline information about what types of seaweed species in many regions (California and Hawaii primarily), how to tell these species apart from one another, where to find these species, how they reproduce, and more. Without this fundamental information, there is no basis upon which conservation efforts can happen — you cannot protect a species if you don’t know details about it, such as where it lives and what it looks like.


Photo Credits

Slide 1: Left: Chuck Painter / Stanford News Science; Right: Hopkins Marine Station, California. 1967. Photographer unknown. Stanford University. CC BY-NC license. The Stanford Library has other images of Dr. Abbott.

Slide 2: Left: Photographer unknown. Hopkins Marine Station, California. 1983. Stanford University. CC BY-NC license. The Stanford Library has other images of Dr. Abbott; Right: Screenshot of the cover for “Marine Algae of California” by Isabella Aiona Abbott and George J. Hollenberg. Stanford University Press. 

Slide 3: Left: Chuck Painter / Stanford News Science; Right: Photo Credit: Ingrid P. Lin, Smithsonian Institution.


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