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Venetia Burney

Venetia Burney
Head-and-shoulders black and white 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
Relatives Falconer Madan, grandfather

Venetia Katharine Douglas 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.


  • Biography 1
  • Legacy 2
  • References 3
  • External links 4


Venetia Burney was the daughter of Rev. 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]

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] 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.[6]

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.[7]


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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
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