Venetia Phair, at 90; as child, gave planet Pluto its name

By Robert Barr
Associated Press / May 9, 2009
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LONDON - Venetia Phair, who was 11 years old when she suggested Pluto as the name of the newly discovered planet, has died at age 90, her family said.

She died at home in Epsom on April 30, the family said; the cause of death was not disclosed.

Born Venetia Burney, she suggested the name to her grandfather at breakfast in 1930.

"My grandfather, as usual, opened the paper, The Times, and in it he read that a new planet had been discovered," she recalled in a short film, "Naming Pluto," released earlier this year. "He wondered what it should be called. We all wondered.

"And then I said, 'Why not call it Pluto?' And the whole thing stemmed from that."

Her grandfather was Falconer Madan, the retired librarian of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. He relayed the suggestion to his friend Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at Oxford, who on that day was at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, where possible names for the planet were being discussed.

Turner then passed the suggestion to Clyde W. Tombaugh, who made the discovery, at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona.

When the name was publicly announced on May 1, 1930, Mrs. Phair said her grandfather rewarded her with a five-pound note. (The same purchasing power today would be about 230 pounds, or $350.)

"This was unheard of then," she told the British Broadcasting Corp. in 2006. "As a grandfather, he liked to have an excuse for generosity."

She was fascinated with astronomy, and recalled playing a game at school using clay lumps to mark out the relative positions of the planets.

She was also a keen student of mythology, and knew about Pluto, the Roman name for the Greek god of the underworld, Hades.

"There were practically no names left from classical mythology," she told the BBC. "Whether I thought about the dark and gloomy Hades, I'm not sure."

She tartly rejected any suggestion that the planet was named for the Disney dog, instead of the other way around.

"It has now been satisfactorily proven that the dog was named after the planet, rather than the other way round," she said. "So, one is vindicated."

The International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto in 2006 to a dwarf planet, based on the observation that Pluto was a large chunk in the Kuiper Belt of solar debris.

Mrs. Phair said she was indifferent about Pluto's change of status, "though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet."

An asteroid discovered in 1987 was named in her honor: 6235 Burney.

She studied mathematics at Cambridge University and taught economics and math until retiring in the 1980s.