WAILUKU - Isabella Kauakea Aiona Abbott, a Hana Native Hawaiian girl who became an internationally known expert in limu, has died at her home on Oahu. She was 91.
Abbott combined her Native Hawaiian heritage and her scientific studies effortlessly. She once said, "I am the most Hawaiian person you will ever meet, and I am the most western person you will ever meet."
Catherine Davenport, who taught Hawaiian ethnobotany at Maui Community College from 1996 to 2007, was taught and mentored by Abbott.
CELIA SMITH photo
Isabella Abbott, the first woman of Native Hawaiian ancestry to earn a doctorate in science, was internationally renowned for her knowledge of the marine algae of the central Pacific and delighted in introducing young people to the varieties of limu.
CELIA SMITH photo
CELIA SMITH photo
"Each time I dropped in on her," she wrote in a reminiscence last week, "she would stop, and generously make time for me.
"For 21 years, she watched me. It amazed me that no matter how busy she was, she would stop what she was doing to encourage my work with olona (an endemic Hawaiian plant), and later my teaching.
"In 2005, Izzy Abbott offered to be my adviser if I would pursue a master's degree in botany," Davenport wrote. "She had wanted to retire, but said she would stay a little longer until I completed the degree. . . . She offered the same stunningly generous offer to others."
According to a notice published by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Abbott died at her home on Oahu on Oct. 28. Services are pending.
Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw said Abbott "was considered the world's foremost expert on central Pacific algae, and she was also a gracious, beloved member of our Manoa ohana. Her dedication to the field brought much honor to campus, and her gifted talents and love for research resulted in numerous recognitions, including being named a Living Treasure by the Honpa Hongwanji."
In a statement from Washington, Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, said she saw Abbott most recently when "she spoke eloquently and passionately at the public hearing held by President Obama's Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force in Honolulu a little over a year ago."
Lubchenco said Abbott was central to many of the federal agency's stewardship responsibilities in the Pacific, especially in understanding the wealth of marine life in Papahanaumokuakea, the marine national monument in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
"As the first Native Hawaiian woman to earn a Ph.D., a long list of 'firsts' grace her official biographies - but for those of us who knew her, the 'first' that matters most is the warm feeling of love and affection that first come to mind whenever we think of her," Lubchenco said. "Limu was her passion; the merger of brilliant science with deep respect of native culture and all peoples is her legacy. She will be sorely missed."
Abbott earned a degree in botany at UH, a master's at the University of Michigan and a doctorate in algal taxonomy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1950.
UH President M.R.C. Greenwood noted that her early work, the 800-page "Marine Algae of California," was hailed as a "quantum advance" in taxonomy of marine algae.
Abbott was the first Native Hawaiian woman to earn a doctorate in science.
She was also the first woman on the biological sciences faculty at Stanford University, where she taught for 30 years.
According to the October issue of UH's Malamalama magazine, more than 200 algae owe their discovery and scientific names to Abbott's taxonomy. Several species have been named after her, along with an entire genus - Abbottella, which means "little Abbott."
She was especially protective of the Hawaiian limu. On field trips with Maui Community College students near her condominium in Maalaea, she pointed out how the local species had declined, which she attributed to pesticide runoff.
Davenport described meeting Abbott in Kahului in 1989.
"Izzy Abbott was my angel. And an angel to many others," she said. "I wanted to speak with her about a culturally important, endemic Hawaiian plant, olona. I had to muster all of my courage to approach the renowned Dr. Isabella Abbott, and take her precious time. She would know more than most about a lost art.
"I trembled at her office door," Davenport said. "I handed her a tiny piece of olona rope that I had made, from an olona stalk brought to the Hawaiian ethnobotany class I was taking, taught by the late, beloved Parley Kanakaole at MCC.
"Dr. Abbott was firm of gaze. And silence prevailed. She rolled the rope in her hand, and then examined it," she said. "I wished I had not chosen to waste her time, and tried to leave as quickly as possible. But there would be none of that. I knew how limu felt, under her curious scrutiny.
"It was heartwarming to discuss olona with her, a subject few people knew about, and I was grateful for her time and knowledge."
Abbott is survived by her daughter, Annie Abbott Foerster, of Kaneohe; and granddaughter, Catherine Foerster, of Danville, Calif.
The UH Manoa Department of Botany has established a fund at the UH Foundation to support graduate research in Hawaiian ethnobotany and marine botany. Checks may be made out to UH Foundation, with "Abbott Award for Graduate Research" in the memo section, and mailed to UH Foundation, P.O. Box 11270, Honolulu 96828-0270.
To make a donation online, visit www.uhf.hawaii.edu/AbbottAwardforGradResearch.
The Malamalama cover story, "Pioneering professor is first lady of limu," is at www.hawaii.edu/malamalama/2010/10/isabella-abbott.
* Harry Eagar can be reached at email@example.com.