Olbers, Heinrich Wilhelm Matthias (1758 - 1840)

Olbers graduated as a medical doctor and practiced medicine throughout his life in Bremen. Nightly from his home observatory furnished at the top level of his home he observed. His diligence brought him more reputation in the field of astronomy, such as a doctor.

Heinrich Wilhelm Matthias Olbers (1758 – 1840) was a German physician and amateur astronomer. After completing his studies he got his doctorate at December 28, 1780. After that he practiced medicine in Bremen. Nightly from his home observatory furnished at the top level of his home he observed. During these nights he discovered the second asteroid Pallas, and the fourth, Vesta. He discovered a total of six comets, one among them, the periodic comet 13P/Olbers that was discovered in 1815, and has an orbital period 69 and a half year, bears his name.

The 50th anniversary of Olbers' degree was celebrated in 1830. For the event now then famous - especially as an astronomer - 50 mm diameter silver and bronze medals were issued showing the doctor's left-facing portrait. The legend around remembers this: "HEINR. WILH. MATH. OLBERS GEB. D. 11 OCT. 1758 DOCTOR DER HEILKUNDE D. 18 DEC. 1780", i. e.H. W. M. Olbers was born on October 11, 1758 doctor of medical sciences onDecember 28 1780. Below the ornate buckled dressed bust of Olbers the engravers' the then young Karl Christoph Pfeuffer, (1801-1861), and his master Gottfried Bernhard Loos (1773-1843) signatures are visible. 

olbers 1830 obverseolbers 1830 reverse

On the reverse are six-pointed stars around, inside legend in 15 lines: "DEM / ENTDECKER / DER / PALLAS U. DER VESTA / DEM ERFORSCHER / DER KOMETENBAHNEN / IHREM / HOCHVEREHRTEN / DIRECTIONS MITGLIEDE / AM IUBELTAGE SEINER / DOCTOR WÜRDE / DIE GESELLSCHAFT / DES MUSEUMS / IN BREMEN / D.28 DEC. 1830 ✿", that is to the discoverer of Pallas and Vesta, the researcher of comets' path, the esteemed member of the Board of Directors, for his doctoral rank anniversary from the museum's society, in Bremen, December 28, 1830.

The foundation of astronomical association in Lilienthal

For the founding conference Schröter's observatory in Lilienthal was chosen. The meeting took place between 13-20, September 1800. The association founders were: Ferdinand Adolf von Ende, Johann Gildemeister, dr. Heinrich Wilhelm Matthias Olbers, Karl Ludwig Harding, von Zách and Johann Hieronymus Schröter. The newly formed astronomical association aimed the following tasks:

  • full exploration of the sky between the planets Mars and Jupiter to find previously supposed unknown planet;
  • to search for comets only visible in telescopes, quickly identify of track parameters and to make them available to other researchers;
  • determination of the parallax of fixed stars;
  • search for variable stars;
  • In order to prepare a better than ever star chart introduce astronomers' work with their peers and establish a working relationship among them using the Monatliche Correspondenz.
Vargha Domokosné : Zách János Ferenc (1754–1832) Csillagász, Hungarian

Olbers also gained prestige among professional astronomers with his astronomical observations. Thanks to this, Baron Franz Xaver von Zach and his German astronomer friends invited him into their newly formed astronomy association. On the foundation of Celestial Police (Himmelspolizei as the founders called themselves), see sidebox.

The Association has reached its goal, and although the first asteroid, Ceres was found accidentally by the Italian astronomer Piazzi, the second and fourth by Olbers, thanks to the systematic search. The international astronomer organization was ahead of its time, and though it was broken up in 1815 in the belief that no more asteroid to be discovered, the members remained in friendly connections with each other. Probably due to this friendship that Olbers – in addition to the above, the "official" medallion – from his close friends also received a commemorative medal for 50th anniversary of his doctorate. 

On the obverse of the 50mm diameter and 69 grams weight bronze medal are two griffins holding in their beaks a decorative wreath above it portraits of Pallas Athena and Vesta (or Greek name Hestia), the goddess of the family and the home, and above them one-one star. Below them dates by Roman numerals, on the left side the discovery of asteroid Pallas (28 March 1802), on the right side of Vesta (29 March 1807) were displayed. 

olbers-zach 1830 obverseolbers-zach 1830 reverse

The mischievous eight-line legend on the reverse of the medal reflects this friendly relationship too. "GVILELMO OLBERS / PALLADIS ET VESTAE SACERDOTI / SAEMISSAECVLARES / DOCTORIS HONORES / GRATVLANTVR SODALES / ZACH · LINDENAU· / DIEM XXVIII · M · DECBR· / MDCCCXXX", i. e. for Guilelmo Olbers, priest of Pallas and Vesta, in honor of half century of his doctorate  congratulate his mates Zach (and) Lindenau on 28th day of the month December, 1830. 

Shortly after Olbers' death, in 1844, the Bremen museum issued another commemorative medal. On the obverse are two left-facing portraits of Olbers and Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus naturalist and botanist in Bremen. Legend around: "✿ G. R. TREVIRANUS GEB. 4 FEB. 1776 GEST. 16 FEB. 1837 ✿ H. W. M. OLBERS GEB. 11 OCT 1758 GEST. 2 MÄRZ 1840", i. e. names, dates of birth and death.

olbers 1844 obverseolbers 1844 reverse

On the revers is a still life compiled from different living creatures. Legend around: "DEN DEUTSCHEN NATURFORSCHERN UND AERTZEN DAS MUSEUM IN BREMEN ✿ IM SEPTEMBER 1844 ✿" i. e. to the German nature researchers and doctors, the Museum in Bremen in September, 1844.

Olbers' name can also be found on a commemorative medal which has been issued on the occasion of the discovery of the 100th asteroid. On that medal besides him many other astronomers can be found, so a separate article was published. Olbers' name is on the obverse at the center bottom.

olbers 100. kisbolygo obverseolbers 100. kisbolygo reverse


On the reverse of German silver commemorative coin that was issued in 1990 for the 150th anniversary of Olbers' death - along with most of his famous discoveries - his comet was displayed. There is the Sun in the center, surrounded by two asteroids, Pallas and Vesta, and the elongated orbit of comet 13P/Olbers. The Neptune's orbit that was discovered in 1846 - that is, after the death of Olbers - has certainly been put to the coin to demonstrate the distance of the comet from the Sun at its aphelion. Placed next to the names of minor planets and Neptune are their astronomical sign, as was usual in the era of Olbers. Legend above: "ENTDECKER, ARZT UND ASTRONOM",  i. e. explorer, physician and astronomer. Below: "PALLAS-28.3.1802 · VESTA-29.3.1807 · KOMET OLBERS-6.3.1815", that is the exact dates of the discoveries can be read.  

comet 1815 reversecomet 1815 obverseThe obverse shows a portrait of Olbers facing half left. Legend above: "150. TODESTAG WILHELM OLBERS 1990", that is the 150th anniversary of the death of Olbers, below exact date of birth and death can be seen.