STEM History:

Isabella Aiona Abbott 


Hawaiian Educator, Psychologist, and Ethnobotanist 

Birth/Death Dates

June 20, 1919 – October 28, 2010


Isabella Aiona Abbott was the first native Hawaiian woman to earn a doctoral degree in science with a Ph.D. in botany. She became a leading expert on Pacific marine algae.

Educational Background

  • Graduated from Kamehameha Schools, Hawaii, 1937
  • Undergraduate degree in botany, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, 1941
  • Master’s degree in botany, the University of Michigan, 1942
  • Ph.D. in botany, the University of California, Berkeley, 1950

Struggles this Innovator Overcame

Abbott’s husband, zoologist Donald Putnam Abbott, taught at the Hopkins Marine Station run by Stanford University. However, women were rarely considered for academic posts at that time, so she studied the California coast’s algae and developed her expertise. She adapted recipes to use the local bull kelp in foods such as cakes and pickles. Eventually, she became the first minority full professor at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station before accepting a position as an ethnobotanist at the University of Hawai’i.

Problems this Innovator Solved

Before Abbott discovered more than 200 new species of Pacific algae, far less was known about Hawaiian seaweed and the algae of the Pacific Ocean basin. Due to her expertise in Pacific algae, particularly Hawaiian seaweed, Abbott was known as the world expert on limu (the Hawaiian term for Hawaiian seaweed) and sometimes even the “First Lady of Limu.”

How this inventor changed the world (or at least their corner of it)

During her career, Abbott published over 50 papers, wrote eight books, and was considered the world’s foremost expert on Hawaiian seaweed and algae of the Pacific Ocean basin. She was credited with discovering over 200 new species of seaweed.

Lasting changes from this inventor’s work or how they trailblazed

  • In 2005, Abbott was named a Living Treasure of Hawaiʻi by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.
  • In 2008, Abbott received a lifetime achievement award from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources for her studies of coral reefs.
  • In 2023, The Board of Regents of the University of Hawaiʻi unanimously voted to rename the Life Sciences Building after Abbott.
  • To preserve Abbott’s legacy and career as a botanist, the University of Hawaiʻi established a scholarship to support graduate research in Hawaiian ethnobotany and marine botany.