Dearly Departed: Isabella Abbott, Algae Taxonomist and Kelp Chef Extraordinaire

Written by Helen Yang, a fourth year student participating in the IMLS, “Strategic Stewardship for Sustaining the Archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology” project.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten to know hundreds of vibrant personalities through only snippets of their correspondences with the MVZ. One of the first whom I “met” in such a way was Dr. Isabella Abbott, an educator and ethnobotanist from Hawaii. Her correspondence with the MVZ comprises mainly of letters and documents she penned as secretary of The Western Society of Naturalists.

Dr. Isabella Abbott's correspondence file in the archives.

Dr. Isabella Abbott’s correspondence file in the archives.

As a woman pursuing science, it’s always inspiring to learn of others before me who have not only succeeded and excelled in their fields, but done so at times in the past when the social climate would have been significantly less welcoming. Abbott received her PhD in algal taxonomy from UC Berkeley in 1950 and was hired as a lecturer in biology at Stanford in 1960. From this position she was promoted to a full professor, bypassing the assistant and associate professor titles, and became one of the world’s leading marine botanists in her time.

Abbott was a pioneer in many ways: first native Hawaiian woman to receive a science PhD, first woman full professor in Stanford’s biology department, not to mention discovering and naming over 200 different algae species. Gifted as a cook as well as a scientist, she was known for her delicious recipes using Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana).


Kelp, the subject of Dr. Abbott’s research and recipes.

Abbott’s achievements were so great that in 2005 she was designated a Living Treasure of Hawaii. She remained an enthusiastic seaweed researcher as a Professor Emerita at Stanford all the way to her passing in 2010.

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