Worlds of David Darling
Encyclopedia of Science
Home > Encyclopedia of Science

Phair, Venetia (1919–2009)

Venetia Phair as an 11-year-old
Venetia Phair was the person who in 1930, when aged 11, suggested the name by which the ninth planet, then recently discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, became known – Pluto. Venetia Phair (née Burney) was, at that time, a schoolgirl in Oxford, England.

On the morning of March 14, 1930, she having breakfast in the house where she lived with her grandfather, Falconer Madan, a retired librarian at the famous Bodleian Library. Madan, pointed to an article in The Times newspaper mentioning that the new-found planet had not yet been named. Venetia, who was keen on Greek and Roman myths, suggested that Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, would make a good time for the dark and remote world. So impressed was Madan that he immediately stopped in to put the idea to his friend Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at the University of Oxford. Ironically, Turner was out at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London where there was much speculation about the naming of the new ninth planet. But when Madan eventually caught up with Turner he agreed that Pluto was an excellent choice and promised to send a telegram to the Lowell Observatory where the planet had been discovered. The astronomers there totally endorsed the suggestion not only because Pluto was one of the few noteworthy names from classical mythology not already taken, but also because its first two letters were the initials of the observatory's founder, Percival Lowell. and on May 1, 1930, the name Pluto was formally adopted. When the news came out, Madan rewarded his granddaughter with a five pound note – a considerable sum at the time. By a strange coincidence, Venetia's great uncle Henry Madan had earlier suggested the names Phobos and Deimos for the moons of Mars.

Postscript: Venetia Phair was sent an invitation by NASA to watch the launch of the New Horizons probe to Pluto but she declined on account of her age.

Related category