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Isabella Abbott, world-renowned Stanford algae expert, dies at 91

Isabella Abbott, Stanford professor emerita of biology, who literally wrote the book on Marine Algae of California, as well as numerous recipes for cooking with kelp and other seaweeds, died in her home in Honolulu in October.

Chuck Painter Izzie Abbott

Isabella "Izzie" Abbott taught at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station from 1960 to 1982.

BY LOUIS BERGERON

Isabella Aiona Abbott, whose algae expertise ranged from the scientific to the savory, died at home in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Oct. 28. She was 91.

Known to friends and colleagues as "Izzie," she taught at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station from 1960 to 1982. During that time, she became "without doubt, the preeminent marine botanist," said Celia Smith, a professor of botany at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, who was one of Abbott's graduate students at Hopkins. 

Abbott's culinary accomplishments with seaweed were also renowned and in 1987 her work was the subject of an article in Gourmet.  She frequently brought dishes that used various seaweeds as an ingredient to potlucks and picnics at Hopkins.

"I don't think she saw a line between her professional career and her hobbies.  She was a terrific cook," Smith said. "Instead of zucchini bread she would show up with a nereocystis cake and you'd be hard-pressed to tell that it wasn't zucchini. It was delicious and usually disappeared in no time."

Abbott moved to Pacific Grove, Calif., in1950 when her husband, Don, joined the faculty as a professor of biology at Hopkins.  In that era, women with PhDs were scarce and faculty positions for them were even scarcer.  For the first few years, Abbott spent her time raising the couple's daughter, Annie, and involving herself in the local community. 

In 1960, she was hired as a lecturer in biology and began teaching summer courses at Hopkins and publishing scientific papers.  Finally, in 1972, her productiveness as a researcher and effectiveness as a teacher were so undeniable that she was hired as a full professor in biology, bypassing the usual steps on the tenure-track ladder of first being an assistant, then associate, professor. 

"That would have been a justified promotion," said Dave Epel, professor emeritus of biology and a colleague of both Abbotts. "She was an exceptional teacher."

Abbott, of Chinese and Hawaiian parentage, became the first female full professor in the biology department, as well as the first minority full professor.

In 1976, she wrote Marine Algae of California, which Epel said is "the definitive description of marine algae along the Pacific coast."

Epel said the Abbotts were both deeply committed to their teaching and often invited students and colleagues to their home. "The two of them, Don and Izzie, they were like the heart of the station in terms of interacting with the students and teaching," he said.

Celia Smith Izzie Abbott on O'ahu with her students.

Izzie Abbott on O'ahu with her students.

Abbott allowed her graduate students to explore their own research interests, rather than insisting they work on her topics, and as a result had students working on a wide range of areas, Smith said.

"It was just a very supportive, almost nurturing, environment for students," she said. "She always had time to listen, had good advice, professional career advice."

In 1982, both Abbotts retired and moved to Hawaii, where Izzie was hired by the University of Hawai'i.  Smith said Abbott began teaching Hawaiian ethnobotany;  her efforts were so successful that they led to development of an undergraduate major in the subject.

In 1997, Abbott was awarded the Gilbert Morgan Smith medal, the highest award in marine botany, from the National Academy of Sciences.

Born in the Territory

Abbott was born Isabella Kauakea Yau Yung Aiona, on June 20, 1919, in Hana, Maui, Territory of Hawaii.  Her mother was of mostly Hawaiian ancestry and her father was Chinese.

Abbott's Hawaiian name means "white rain of Hana," said Annie Abbott Foerster, her daughter. "The rain comes in from the ocean there as sort of a white mist."

As a girl, Izzie and her younger brother, Frank, would often accompany their mother to the seashore where they would gather seaweed for use in cooking traditional Hawaiian food, Foerster said.

Abbott attended Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii, graduating in 1937.

She met Don Abbott at the University of Hawai'i, when both were undergraduates. "He came over to Hawaii determined to be a pearl diver, although not realizing at that stage in his invertebrate career that pearls don't grow in warm water," Foerster said.

Abbott earned a bachelor's degree in botany from the University of Hawai'i in 1941, and a master's degree from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1942. Both Abbotts earned doctorates from the University of California-Berkeley in 1950.

In addition to her scientific publications, Abbott wrote a small book for a lay audience about "limu," the Hawaiian word for seaweed, shortly after she moved back to Hawaii, which continues to sell well, said Smith.

The book contains both Hawaiian and scientific names, stories about limu collected around the islands and, of course, some recipes. 

"She was constantly innovating recipes to incorporate seaweeds," Smith said. 

"At Hopkins, every year, we would get together and everybody would make kelp pickles," Foerster said. "You just soak it for a long time until it gets crispy and not so slimy."

Asked if her mother had a favorite seaweed, Foerster said, "She couldn't pick one, that would be like picking a favorite child."

Izzie is survived by her daughter, Annie Abbott Foerster, of Kane'ohe, Hawaii, and her granddaughter, Catherine Foerster of Danville, Calif.

A memorial will be held at 4 p.m. Hawaiian time today at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Abbott was cremated and her ashes will be scattered at a later date.

Donations in Abbott's memory may be made to a charity of the donor's choice or to a fund established in memory of Abbott at the University of Hawai'i 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, HI 96828-0270.