Astronomy Bio...F. G. W. von Struve

Jay Bitterman

Last month (April 15) was the 206th birthday of Frederich Georg Wilhelm von Struve (also known as Vasily Yakovlevich). He was an expert on double stars and one of the first astronomers to measure stellar parallax. He was also the founder of a dynasty of famous astronomers that spanned four generations.

He was born in Altona, in Schleswig-Holstein, on 15 April 1793. In order avoid conscription into the German army, he fled to Dorpat (now Tartu) in Estonia in 1808. In 1810 he graduated from the University of Dorpat. His interest in astronomy led to his appointment as an observer at the Dorpat Observatory in 1813. In the same year he was awarded his Ph.D. and became Extraordinary Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the University Dorpat.

From 1817 onwards he served as Director of the Dorpat Observatory. Beginning in 1834 he was primarily concerned with the construction and equipping of the observatory at Pulkovo near St. Petersburg, which was opened in 1839. He retired in 1862 and his son succeeded him as Director of the Pulkovo Observatory. He died in Pulkovo on 23 November 1864. He was a member of virtually every European scientific academy the time of his death.

His earliest research dealt with questions of geodesy and stellar motion but his primary interest was in the discovery and measurement of double stars. In 1822 he published a catalogue of about 800 known double stars, and he instigated an extensive observational program. In 1827 the number of known such stars had increased to more than 3,000. In 1843 he published a paper in which he described more than 500 multiple stars in addition to his earlier work on double stars.

Back in 1822 he was one of the first astronomers to successfully detect stellar parallax. In 1830 he measured the parallax of Alpha Lyrae. Other work of particular note included his observations, published in 1846, of the absorption of stellar light in the galactic plane, which he correctly deduced to be caused by the presence of interstellar material. He also investigated the distribution of stars in space. In addition to his work in astronomy, Struve made significant contributions to geodesy with his survey of Livonia (1816) and his measurements of the arc of meridian (1822-27).