Venetia Burney


Venetia Burney
Head-and-shoulders black and white photograph of subject as 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 aged 11
Venetia Katharine Douglas Burney

(1918-07-11)11 July 1918
Died30 April 2009(2009-04-30) (aged 90)
Banstead, England
Known forNaming Pluto
Edward Maxwell Phair
(m. 1947⁠–⁠2006)
ChildrenPatrick Phair
RelativesFalconer Madan, grandfather

Venetia Katharine Douglas Burney (married name Phair, 11 July 1918 – 30 April 2009), as an English girl of 11 years old, was credited by Clyde Tombaugh with first suggesting the name Pluto for the dwarf planet he discovered in 1930. She was living in Oxford, England, at the time. As an adult she worked as an accountant and a teacher.


Venetia 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). She 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. Clyde 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] Whether she was really the first person to propose the name has been doubted on plausibility grounds,[4] but the historical fact is that she was credited as such.

Burney was educated at Downe House School in Berkshire and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied economics from 1938-41.[5] 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.[6] 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 a debate going on about the issue, she said in an interview, "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 and Burney Crater on Pluto were named in her honour.[7][8] In July 2015 the New Horizons spacecraft was the first to visit Pluto and carried an instrument named Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter in her honour.[9]

Massachusetts rock band The Venetia Fair came up with their name after reading about Venetia Phair, shortly after Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet.[10]


  1. ^ "Venetia Phair". Daily Telegraph. 5 May 2009. Retrieved 11 May 2009. 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 acknowledged as such only temporarily) the ninth planet in our solar system
  2. ^ "Proceedings of the Royal Astronomical Society". The Observatory. 53: 193–201. July 1930. Bibcode:1930Obs....53..193. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  3. ^ a b Rincon, Paul (13 January 2006). "The girl who named a planet". Pluto: The Discovery of Planet X. BBC News. Retrieved 12 April 2007.
  4. ^ Geoff Nunberg. Another Plutonian casualty? Language Log. 27 August 2006.
  5. ^ Newnham College Register, vol II. Newnham College. 1981. p. 179.
  6. ^ Grimes, William (10 May 2009). "Venetia Phair Dies at 90; as a Girl, She Named Pluto". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 May 2009. 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.
  7. ^ "JPL Small-Body Database Browser". NASA. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  8. ^ "Pluto: dwarf planet's surface features given first official names". The Guardian. 8 September 2017. Retrieved 8 September 2017.
  9. ^ "Pluto-Bound Science Instrument Renamed for Girl Who Named Ninth Planet". NASA. 30 June 2006. Archived from the original on 9 March 2015. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  10. ^ "Exclusive Interview: The Venetia Fair". Neck Deep Media. Archived from the original on 21 July 2015. Retrieved 21 April 2015.

External links

  • The girl who named a planet (BBC News Online)
  • Parents' Union School Diamond Jubilee Magazine: The Planet 'Pluto' by K.M. Claxton
  • What Planet is This?: Venetia Burney and Pluto
  • NASA interview with Venetia Phair