Prof. Adriaan Blaauw

ESO’s Director General from 1970 to 1974

Prof. Adriaan BlaauwAdriaan Blaauw was born on 12 April 1914 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Blaauw was educated in the Netherlands, beginning his studies of astronomy at Leiden University in 1932, and working with de Sitter, Hertzsprung and Oort. He obtained his doctorate, cum laude, in 1946 while a research assistant at the Kapteyn Astronomical Laboratory in Groningen. His thesis, titled Scorpio-Centaurus Cluster, was a study of young stars moving together through the galaxy and was supervised by Pieter J. van Rhijn.

In 1945 Blaauw was appointed “conservator” at the Leiden Observatory then became an associate professor at the observatory three years later. In 1953 he received an appointment at the Yerkes and McDonald Observatories in the United States and became Associate Director of that institute in 1956.

Blaauw returned to Europe the following year, when he became director of the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in Groningen. Between 1958 and 1965, he was secretary of the Netherlands Foundation for Radio Astronomy, which operated the radio telescope in Dwingeloo and prepared the construction of the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope. It was during this period that he played a key role in the preparation and building of the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Between 1964 and 1968 Blaauw was also the Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences in Groningen.

Blaauw’s main research interests were in galactic structure and in star formation, in particular in the properties of the young O and B-type stars which occur in loose groups (associations), and are now recognised as the fossil record of star formation. Blaauw’s contributions include directly confirming the young ages of many bright, hot stars in clusters and, famously, his conclusion that fast-moving “runaway” O or B type stars might have gained their high velocity when a former companion exploded as a supernova.

In 1968 Blaauw became the Scientific Director of ESO, and subsequently served as its second Director General from 1970 until 1974. During his time at ESO the organisation grew and stabilised, with several telescopes including the ESO 0.5-metre and the ESO 1-metre Schmidt telescopes becoming operational at the La Silla Observatory. Much work was done on the design and construction of the ESO 3.6-metre telescope, which saw first light in 1976. Shortly after taking duty, Blaauw decided to move ESO’s Headquarters and Technical Department from Hamburg, Germany to Geneva, Switzerland. This move took advantage of the experienced CERN engineering group, and helped realise the ESO 3.6-metre telescope. After leaving ESO, Blaauw returned to Leiden Observatory, as professor of astronomy.

During his time at ESO, Blaauw was instrumental in the creation of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, and he was the first chair of its Board of Directors. He held this position from 1968 until 1979.

Following his tenure at ESO, Blaauw continued to contribute his leadership to the astronomical community. From 1976 until 1979 Blaauw served as President of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and used his considerable diplomatic skills to negotiate the return of China to the IAU, which had left the organisation in 1961. He also chaired the HIPPARCOS observing programme selection committee for the European Space Agency (ESA) from 1982 to 1989.

Blaauw returned to the Kapteyn Institute after retiring in 1981 but stayed active in research on the properties of young stellar groups and of the “runaway” stars. He organized the historical archives of ESO and of the IAU, work that resulted in the publication of two books, ESO’s Early History and History of the IAU. In this period, he gave numerous interviews and talks on the history of Dutch and worldwide astronomy and published an very informative and eminently readable autobiography entitled My Cruise Through the World of Astronomy in the 2004 Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

For his contributions to Dutch astronomy and to society, Blaauw was made a Knight in the Order of the Dutch Lion, and a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, as well as of various foreign academies. He was also awarded the Bruce Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Blaauw married Alida Henderika van Muijlwijk. The couple had one son and three daughters.

Adriaan Blaauw died in Groningen, the Netherlands, on 1 December 2010.

A detailed CV is below.

Prof. Adriaan Blaauw

Born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands in 1914; Dutch nationality.

Died in Groningen, the Netherlands in 2010.


  • PhD in Astronomy, Kapteyn Laboratory, Groningen, the Netherlands (1946)
  • Master’s Degree, University of Leiden, the Netherlands
  • Bachelor’s Degree, University of Leiden, the Netherlands
  • Amsterdam Lyceum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Professional Activities:

  • 1938–1945: Assistant, Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, Groningen, the Netherlands
  • 1948–1953: Associate Professor, Leiden University, the Netherlands
  • 1953–1957: Associate Professor, University of Chicago, USA
  • 1957–1969: Professor, University of Groningen; Director, Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, Groningen, the Netherlands
  • 1970–1974: Director General of ESO
  • 1975–1981: Professor, Leiden University, the Netherlands
  • 1976–1979: President of the International Astronomical Union
  • 1981–2010: Guest Investigator, University of Groningen, the Netherlands

Research: Star formation, OB associations, galactic structure.

Publications: authored and co-authored approximately 60 refereed papers and many other contributions and book, including a number of historical studies.


  • Elected member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1963.
  • Elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1973.
  • Elected member of several national academies, commissions and committees.

Other Affiliations and Honours:

  • Asteroid designated 2145 Blaauw, International Astronomical Union, 1976
  • Bruce Medal, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1989
  • Honorary Doctorate, University of Besancon, 1961
  • Honorary Doctorate, l’Observatoire de Paris, 2004
  • Blaauw chair and Blaauw lecture, University of Groningen, 1997
  • Knight, Order of the Dutch Lion
  • The Blaauw Observatory, University of Groningen, 2008