Venetia Burney

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Venetia Burney
Head-and-shoulders photograph of a young girl. She wears a light-coloured blouse and faces right, looking out of the picture, with a slight smile. Her short hair is pulled back from her face and pinned up.
Venetia Burney at age 11
Born Venetia Katharine Douglas Burney
(1918-07-11)11 July 1918
Died 30 April 2009(2009-04-30) (aged 90)
Banstead, England, UK
Known for Naming Pluto
Spouse(s) Edward Maxwell Phair (m. 1947–2006)
Children Patrick Phair
Parent(s) Charles Fox Burney
Ethel Wordsworth Madan
Relatives Falconer Madan, grandfather

Venetia Phair, née Burney (11 July 1918 – 30 April 2009) was the first person to suggest the name Pluto for the planet discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. At the time, she was 11 years old and lived in Oxford, England, UK.


Venetia Katharine Douglas Burney was the daughter of Rev. Charles Fox Burney, Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, and his wife Ethel Wordsworth Burney (née Madan). Venetia was the granddaughter of Falconer Madan (1851–1935), Librarian of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford.[1] Falconer Madan's brother, Henry Madan (1838–1901), Science Master of Eton, had in 1878 suggested the names Phobos and Deimos for the moons of Mars.[2]

On 14 March 1930, Falconer Madan read the story of the new planet's discovery in The Times, and mentioned it to his granddaughter Venetia. She suggested the name Pluto – the Roman God of the Underworld who was able to make himself invisible − and Falconer Madan forwarded the suggestion to astronomer Herbert Hall Turner, who cabled his American colleagues at Lowell Observatory. Tombaugh liked the proposal because it started with the initials of Percival Lowell who had predicted the existence of Planet X, which they thought was Pluto because it was coincidentally in that position in space. On 1 May 1930, the name Pluto was formally adopted for the new celestial body.[3]

Burney was educated at Downe House School in Berkshire and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied mathematics. After graduation she became a chartered accountant. Later she became a teacher of economics and mathematics at girls’ schools in southwest London. She was married to Edward Maxwell Phair from 1947 until his death in 2006. Her husband, a classicist, later became housemaster and head of English at Epsom College. She died on 30 April 2009, aged 90, in Banstead in Surrey.[4] She was buried at Randalls Park Crematorium in Leatherhead in Surrey.

Only a few months before the reclassification of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet, with the debate going on about the issue, she said in an interview that "At my age, I've been largely indifferent [to the debate]; though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet."[3]


The asteroid 6235 Burney was named in her honour.[5] The student dust counter, an instrument on board the New Horizons spacecraft, was also renamed Venetia after her.[6] Massachusetts rock band The Venetia Fair came up with their name after reading about Venetia Phair, shortly after Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet. [7]


  1. ^ "Venetia Phair". Daily Telegraph. May 5, 2009. Retrieved 2009-05-11. Venetia Phair, who has died aged 90, had the distinction of being the only woman in the world to have named a planet; in 1930, as a girl of 11, she suggested the name Pluto for the enigmatic celestial body that had just been discovered, and which became (albeit only temporarily) the ninth planet in our solar system. 
  2. ^ The Observatory, Vol. 53, pp. 193–201 (1930)
  3. ^ a b P. Rincon (2006-01-13). "The girl who named a planet". Pluto: The Discovery of Planet X (BBC News). Retrieved 2007-04-12. 
  4. ^ Grimes, William (May 10, 2009). "Venetia Phair Dies at 90; as a Girl, She Named Pluto.". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-05-11. Venetia Phair, as she became by marriage, died April 30 in her home in Banstead, in the county of Surrey, England. She was 90. The death was confirmed by her son, Patrick. 
  5. ^ JPL Small-Body Database Browser
  6. ^ Pluto-Bound Science Instrument Renamed for Girl Who Named Ninth Planet, NASA News, June 30, 2006
  7. ^

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