Lodewijk Woltjer (1930–2019)
27 August 2019
ESO’s longest-serving Director General, Lodewijk Woltjer, passed away on Sunday 25 August 2019 at the age of 89.
Lodewijk Woltjer, known to many as Lo, was ESO’s third and longest-serving Director General, from 1975 to 1987. He had a strong vision for ESO’s future before he even took up the position as Director General, and one of the most significant imprints he left on ESO was the establishment of a science group, which transformed it from a purely functional observatory into an active scientific research organisation.
In addition to this fundamental shift and expansion of ESO’s work, Prof. Woltjer oversaw many important developments during his tenure. These included the inauguration of the Garching Headquarters and addition of two new member states, Italy and Switzerland, in 1982. He signed an agreement with the director of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy to install what is now known as the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at La Silla, and oversaw the design and early construction stages of the New Technology Telescope, which was a crucial precursor the Very Large Telescope (VLT). He also strengthened ESO’s relationships with other organisations, including signing the agreement with the European Space Agency for the Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility, which was set up at ESO Garching. Just before the end of his time as Director General, he received approval by the ESO council for the construction of the VLT, and strongly advocated for Paranal as its optimal location.
Lodewijk Woltjer was born on 26 April 1930 in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, as the son of astronomer Jan Woltjer. He 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.
Following his time at ESO, he remained active in astronomy, and was President of the International Astronomical Union for three years from 1994 to 1997. He also served on many committees, commissions and divisions in the IAU and worked at the Haute-Provence and Arcetri Observatories.
Lodewijk Woltjer will be remembered for his determined leadership of ESO, which set the stage for the VLT — our flagship telescope of today. After leaving ESO, he kept his connections with the organisation, visiting the observatories in Chile on several occasions. As recently as 2017, at the age of 87, he travelled to Chile to attend the First Stone ceremony for the Extremely Large Telescope, ESO’s future flagship.
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