Prof. Lodewijk Woltjer

ESO's Director General from 1975 to 1987

Lodewijk WoltjerLodewijk Woltjer was born on 26 April 1930 in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, as the son of astronomer Jan Woltjer. Woltjer Junior studied at Leiden University, conducting his doctoral research under Jan Oort. In 1957 he obtained his doctorate with a thesis on the magnetic field structure of the Crab Nebula.

Following his PhD, Woltjer continued to research theoretical astrophysics and plasma physics — studying quasars, supernova remnants and magnetic fields in stars and galaxies. He received two postdoctoral research appointments to universities in the United States, then returned to Leiden University in 1959 as a lecturer of astronomy. He became a professor of theoretical astrophysics and plasma physics two years later, holding the position until 1964.

Between 1964 and 1974 Woltjer worked at Columbia University in New York, first as the Chair of the Astronomy Department then the Rutherfurd Professor of Astronomy. He was also  editor of The Astronomical Journal from 1967 until 1974.

Woltjer developed a strong desire to push European astronomy forward and believed that ESO was the organisation with the greatest potential to achieve that goal. In the early 1970s, he championed for a team of active scientists to carry out their own science by interacting with the engineers at ESO. The idea was initially pursued by Director General Adriaan Blaauw in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until Woltjer’s involvement that the ESO Council was convinced of the proposal. Because of this effort, along with his expertise and character, Woltjer was offered the position of Director General, which he took under the condition that he would be allowed to turn ESO into a European centre for astronomical research instead of merely an observatory.

Woltjer served as Director General of ESO from 1975 until 1987. He was the third Director General of ESO and the longest serving. Woltjer’s tenure started a new age within the organisation, marked by the formation of a science group — an international group of scientists that has thrived and expanded over the decades, pushing for advancements in telescopic and optical technology.

On 5 May 1981, Woltjer inaugurated the new Headquarters building in Garching bei München, Germany. At that time ESO was already an important focal point for optical astronomy in Europe and continued that path with Switzerland and Italy joining ESO in 1982.

Under Woltjer’s tenure, the New Technology Telescope (NTT) was designed and entered the early stages of construction. The NTT was a major precursor and testing site for technology later implemented on ESO’s Very Large Telescope and Extremely Large Telescope. At the same time, Woltjer made an agreement with the Director of the Max-Planck-Institute to install an unused 2.2-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory on a 25-year loan.

While at ESO Woltjer served on the astronomy committee of the European Science Foundation and on the board of directors for the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

On 23 February 1983, together with the Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), Woltjer signed the agreement for the Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility (ST–ECF) that was set up at ESO’s Headquarters one year later. Right before his term ended, Woltjer also received approval for the construction of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) by the ESO Council on 8 December 1987.

Woltjer’s years as ESO’s Director General were prolific in many aspects and his strong personality and clear vision for the future brought ESO and European astronomy forward in a decisive way. His work has been recognised by a number of organisations and countries, including the German Astronomical Society and the French Academy of Sciences, along with the governments of the Netherlands, France, and Germany.

From 1994 and 1997 Woltjer was President of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). He continued to serve on many committees, commissions and divisions in the IAU. Following his time at ESO, he has worked at the Haute-Provence and Arcetri Observatories.

In 2006 Woltjer published the book Europe’s Quest for the Universe, where he discusses the roles of ESO, ESA and national initiatives in unravelling the mysteries of the Universe.

Lodewijk Woltjer died on 25 August 2019 at the age of 89.

ESO is collecting recollections about Prof. Woltjer for a dedicated post in the ESOblog. Contributions should be sent to the email address by 15 September. 

A detailed CV is below.

Prof. Lodewijk Woltjer

Born in Noordwijk, the Netherlands in 1930; Dutch nationality.


PhD in Astronomy, Leiden University, Leiden, the Netherlands (1957)

Professional Activities:

  • 1957–1958: Research Associate, Yerkes Observatory, University of Chicago, USA
  • 1959–1961: Lecturer, Leiden University, the Netherlands
  • 1961–1964: Professor, Leiden Universityn, the Netherlands
  • 1964–1972: Chairman of the Astronomy Department, Columbia University, New York, USA
  • 1964–1974: Rutherfurd Professor of Astronomy, Columbia University, New York, USA
  • 1968–1974: Editor of the Astronomical Journal
  • 1975–1987: Director General of ESO
  • 1988–2005: Editor-in-Chief of The Astronomy and Astrophysics Review
  • 1990: Visitor, Haute-Provence Observatory, France
  • 1991–1993: Co-founder and President of the European Astronomical Society
  • 1994–1997: President of the International Astronomical Union
  • 1997–2004: Bruno Rossi Visiting Fellow, Arcetri Observatory, Florence, Italy

Research: Theoretical astrophysics, plasma physics.

Publications: Authored and co-authored over 180 refereed papers and books.


  • Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA, 1959–1961
  • Member, Council of the American Astronomical Society, 1969–1971
  • Corresponding Member, Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, 1978–
  • Corresponding Member, Société Royale des Sciences de Liège, 1982–
  • Member, Royal Society of Sciences of Uppsala, 1984–
  • Foreign Member, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1988–
  • Associé Etranger de l'Académie des Sciences, 1992–
  • Foreign Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1994–
  • Foreign Member, Russian Academy of Sciences, 1994–
  • Member, Royal Physiographic Society of Lund, 1994–
  • Foreign Member, Academia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1997–
  • Associate, Royal Astronomical Society, 1988–
  • Honorary Member, American Astronomical Society, 1994–

Other Affiliations and Honours:

  • Visiting Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, 1962
  • Visiting Professor, University of Maryland, USA, 1963
  • Chairman, High Energy Division of the American Astronomical Society, 1974
  • Benjamin Apthorp Gould Medal, National Academy of Sciences, USA, 1975
  • Gould Prize, National Academy of Sciences, USA, 1975
  • Honorary Doctorate, University of Basel, 1982
  • Honorary Doctorate, University of Lund, 1985
  • Ridder in De Orde van de Nederlandse Leeuw, the Netherlands, 1987
  • Karl Schwarzschild Medal, Astronomische Gesellschaft, 1987
  • Grosses Verdienstkreuz des Verdienstordens Deutschland, Germany, 1988
  • Janssen Medal, Académie des sciences, 1988
  • Honorary Doctorate, University of Bologna, 1988
  • Honorary Doctorate, University of Liège, 1991
  • Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, France, 1992
  • Honorary Doctorate, University of Geneva, 2002
  • Eponym of the Lodewijk Woltjer Lecture award, given by the European Astronomical Society