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University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa honors “First Lady of Limu”

The University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa (UH) Board of Regents voted unanimously to rename the UH Life Sciences Buildings in honor of the late “First Lady of Limu,” Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott. This decision was reached after six years of campaigning from various groups on campus and members of staff and faculty, UH’s statement states.

“Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott truly exemplifies what it means to be a person of significance to the University of Hawaiʻi,” UH President David Lassner wrote in a letter to the board. “And the new Life Sciences Building provides a highly befitting opportunity to honor her life, career and contributions.”

Abbott, who passed away at 91 in 2010, was a Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) and Chinese professor of ethnobotany, which is the study of the interaction between plants and humans. She earned her bachelor’s in botany from UH in 1941, then a master’s from University of Michigan and a doctorate from University of California, Berkeley, both in botany. She was the first Kānaka Maoli woman to hold a PhD in a scientific field.

“She faced numerous barriers to her career advancement, but she not only smashed them, she also worked to open pathways for other Native Hawaiian scientists,” Department of Oceanography and Hawaiʻi Sea Grant Associate Professor Rosie Alegado told the Board of Regents. “Most importantly, Izzie’s unparalleled achievements were not made in spite of her upbringing and cultural heritage but because of them.”

In 1960, Abbott joined Stanford University as a research associate and lecturer. She later became the first woman and first person of color to become a full professor of biology at Stanford and continued on to become a leading expert in marine biology, discovering over 200 different species of algae and receiving the nickname, “First Lady of Limu.” “Limu” means algae. In May 2022, Stanford’s marine laboratory, Hopkins Marine Station, installed a plaque dedicated to Abbott’s life and achievements, according to the Stanford Report.

Abbott and her husband, Donald Putman Abbott, returned to Hawaiʻi in 1992, where she joined the faculty at UH and served as the G. P. Wilder Professor of Botany and helped establish UH’s program in ethnobotany. 

“Our mom, Tūtū and dear friend is undoubtedly smiling her huge and warming smile at this tremendous honor,” Abbott’s daughter, Annie Abbott Foerster, said to the board. “May Dr. Abbott’s legacy of selfless service to one another, countless mentorships, and her tireless pursuits in marine botany combined with the intentional recognition of deeply rooted Hawaiian traditions remain an example and a covering for this building and all who pass through its doors.”

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