Marine Botanist Isabella Aiona Abbott and More Women to Know this Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
By Healoha Johnston of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and Sara Cohen of Because of Her Story
Our Smithsonian collections highlight the achievements of countless Asian American and Pacific Islander women. This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we invite you to learn about marine botanist Isabella Aiona Abbott, plus six other Asian American and Pacific Islander women represented in our Smithsonian collections. Explore their legacies through their scientific work, portraits, art, and other objects.
Isabella Aiona Abbot
Marine algae expert Isabella Aiona Abbott broke barriers during her long career as a scientist, author, and university professor. She is thought to be the first Native Hawaiian person to earn a PhD in science. She was the first woman and first person of color to become a full Professor of Biology at Stanford University. After teaching at Stanford from 1960–1982, she retired and pursued a second career as professor of botany at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Abbott established the University's undergraduate major in Ethnobotany.
Abbott strove to uncover historical uses for marine algae. She also found ways to reintroduce seaweeds into everyday life. She relied heavily on oral histories, often crediting elders in her work, to preserve what was quickly diminishing ocean knowledge. Her work led to university-level study of Hawaiian ocean knowledge. She also continued Hawaiian ocean stewardship practices through the cultivation and harvest of limu (marine algae).
Abbott wrote almost 200 texts about algae and seaweeds. To celebrate Abbot's 100th birthday, the Bishop Museum, Hawaiʻi's State Museum of Natural and Cultural History, republished her book, Lāʻau Hawaiʻi, Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants in 2019. In the book, Abbott writes that she aims to "demonstrate the vital link between the Hawaiian flora and the Hawaiian culture." Today, several of her specimens are part of our National Museum of Natural History's botany collections.
Abbott enthusiastically sought to revitalize the relationship people have with natural ecosystems. One way of activating that connection is through the mindful consumption and utilization of plants all around us. That included bringing her seaweed cake to potlucks and sharing the recipe in her book Limu, An Ethnobotanical Study of Some Hawaiian Seaweeds. Here is her recipe:
A recipe originally designed to use Nereocystis kelp that is common in central California and northward. In Hawaiʻi, either Eucheuma species from Kāneʻohe Bay or ogo may be used.
Cream well 1 ½ cups salad oil, 2 cups sugar; add 3 eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add 2 cups grated carrots, 2 cups grated Eucheuma or 2 cups coursely chopped ogo, 1 cup crushed, drained pineapple, or 1 cup fresh grated coconut.
Sift together 2 ½ cups sifted flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Mix all together.
Add 1 cup walnuts if desired.
Bake in oblong pan or loaf pan at 350 degrees 45-50 minutes.
Serve plain or with buttercream frosting. A moist cake which keeps very well.
Six More Asian American and Pacific Islander Women to Know
Get to know these notable artists, architects, athletes, and activists through our collections.
1. Zarina Hashmi
Born in Aligarh, India, today artist Zarina Hashmi lives and works in New York City. She studied mathematics before working in printmaking and papermaking in the 1960s. Her work explores themes of geographical and social borders, migration, and home. She often incorporates text in her native Urdu into her work. See examples of Hashmi's work, her writings, and more in her papers at our Archives of American Art.
2. Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner
Poet, educator, and environmental activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner lives in Majuro, Marshall Islands. She speaks out about climate change and the consequences of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands through her poetry. She also co-founded and directs Jo-Jikumm, a nonprofit that supports Marshallese youth taking action on environmental issues that affect their community. In 2014, she performed at opening ceremony of the United Nations Climate Summit. Learn "How to Think Like An Artist" with Jetñil-Kijiner in a video and lesson plan from our Asian Pacific American Center and our Center for Learning and Digital Access.
3. Maya Lin
When Maya Lin was a student at Yale University, her understated and abstract design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was selected through a blind competition. Today, Lin works as an architect and artist. She specializes in civic memorials and large-scale installations. Her work is featured across our collections. Her Vietnam Veterans Memorial design is remembered on a stamp at our National Postal Museum, she is featured in two portraits at our National Portrait Gallery, and in 2015 she created Folding the Chesapeake, an art installation honoring her father, for our Smithsonian American Art Museum.
4. Judi Oyama
Skateboard Hall of Famer Judi Oyama began skating as a teen, going on to win many competitions. At age 43, she won the 2003 Slalom World Championships. Ten years later she was ranked second in the U.S. and first in the masters division overall. She has also worked as the vice president of Board Rescue, which provided skateboards and safety equipment to organizations that work with kids from low-income households. Read more about Oyama. You can find her helmet, photos, and more in the collections of our National Museum of American History. Her helmet and a 1979 trophy she won are part of the exhibition Girlhood (It's Complicated).
5. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee
Born in Guangzhou, China, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee won an academic scholarship that included a U.S. visa. In 1905, her family moved and settled in New York City's Chinatown. At age 16, Lee helped lead a women's suffrage parade attended by 10,000 people. She continued speaking out to improve the lives of women and girls. She joined the Women's Political Equality Union, gave speeches, and published essays. Learn about Lee and lesser-known suffragists in Creating Icons: How We Remember Woman Suffrage at our National Museum of American History.
6. Shahzia Sikander
Pakistani American artist Shahzia Sikander works in many different art forms. Her work includes watercolor painting, layered paper, mural-sized paintings, and animation. She also incorporates historical South Asian art of miniature painting. Her work examines the rich multicultural identities and links between present and past. She is a 2006 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship "Young Global Leader" award. Her self-portrait and portrait of Pakistani American playwright Ayad Akhtar are part of our National Portrait Gallery's collection. Her work has also been exhibited at several Smithsonian museums including Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery; and our National Museum of Asian Art.
Healoha Johnston is the curator of Asian Pacific American women's cultural history at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Johnston's research explores connections between historic visual culture and contemporary art to understand the contemporary experience.
Sara E. Cohen is the digital audiences and content coordinator for Because of Her Story, the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. She shares lesser-known histories of women through this website, Because of Her Story newsletter, and Smithsonian social media.
Photo of Isabella Aiona Abbott by Chuck Painter / Stanford News Service