Venetia, the Woman who Named Pluto

Pluto, photographed on the 2015 ‘flyby reconnaissance’ mission

How it began…

To: Professor Herbert Hall Turner, Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford

94 Banbury Road, Oxford
March 14th 1930

Dear Professor,
This new planet! As my older brother suggested the names of Deimos and Phobos for the Martian moons, I was set wondering about a name for the big obscure new baby at breakfast today. It is of course most dim and dark and gloomy. Blest if my little granddaughter Venetia Burney didn’t up and suggest a name which seems to me to be thoroughly suitable, PLUTO. I hope it hasn’t been bagged for an asteroid. He was king of the murky and mysterious nether kingdom. You see Odin was a bright god and far from appropriate; but Pluto is good. Don’t trouble to reply.
I am, sincerely yours
F. Madan

A visit to Epsom
On a chilly, dark evening in November 2005, I drove to Epsom in Surrey, to the house of Venetia Phair, nee Burney. A small and stocky lady opened the door, and greeted me with a warm smile. I proffered a bunch of purple irises, which she accepted with pleased surprise. Now 87 years old, and still sharp and alert, she was once the 11-year old who had suggested the name ‘Pluto’ for the newly-discovered planet in 1930.

I had been researching for an MA essay, on the topic of how planets and other astronomical bodies acquire their names. If I could find Venetia – if she was still alive – it would be a wonderful opportunity to hear a ‘naming’ story at first hand. After some investigation, I managed to track her down, and wrote to ask if I might visit.

Venetia on my visit in 2005, with her ‘Pluto’ album

‘This new planet!’
The discovery of the planet Pluto was a major event, as the furthest-known planet from the sun. There had been two ‘new planets’ in the previous 150 years – first, Sir William Herschel had identified Uranus in 1781, after millennia in which only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were known as fellow-planets in our solar system. This was followed by the discovery of Neptune in 1846. And then Pluto’s existence, already predicted from astronomical observations, was finally confirmed by Clyde Tompbaugh, at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona in 1930. Although all three discoveries were not single Eureka! moments, but the consequence of long periods of observations and analysis, nevertheless the actual moment of confirmation was hugely exciting to the world at large. In the case of Pluto, the race was now on to choose a name.

Instead of a suggestion from an august astronomer, it was, in fact, a little girl living in Oxford who named Pluto. What follows is extracted from Venetia’s own account of how it happened, as told to me that November evening. [square brackets are for my comments]

Venetia came from a family with close ties to education and academia. Her father had been much older than her mother. He was only in his fifties, though, when he died of complications following an operation, which came as a great shock to the family. Venetia was only six at the time of his death, and a few years later, at the time of Pluto’s discovery, she and her mother were living with her grandparents in Oxford.

Letters from Venetia’s grandfather, F. Madan, to Professor Henry Herbert Turner. Madan’s brother had named the Martian moons Deimos and Phobos, so there was already a family precedent.

Interview with Venetia

CG I’d love to hear from you, in your own words, what you remember of eventful day of March 14th 1930?

VP Yes of course. What happened was that the news of the discovery came out in the Times that morning, and I was at breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. We speculated, I suppose, and then I said, right off the top of my head, ‘Why not call it Pluto?’ And they thought it was quite a good idea.

Pluto, Roman god of the underworld, also known as Hades in Greek mythology, with his three-headed dog Cerberus

Her grandfather’s letters – preserved by Venetia in a special Pluto album – give a little more detail:

‘When I came down to breakfast as usual at 8am I saw the announcement in the Times and the Daily Mail of the discovery of a new planet beyond Neptune. My daughter Mrs (Ethel) Burney and her daughter Venetia, aged 11, were the only others at breakfast, and I at once said “What will be its name?” I thought of Odin, but did not like it. In a minute or two Venetia said, “It might be called Pluto.” The idea seemed good at once. She had learnt about the old Greek and Latin mythologies, and also the relative distances of the planets, at school.’

VP Anyway, I heard no more of it till about three months later.

CG Had you forgotten about it by then?

VP Oh, I think so! My grandfather [Falconer Madan] was a retired librarian from the Bodleian, and when he retired he had his special bay in the library, with all his interests, which were largely family history and Lewis Carroll. But he was a terrific person, really interested in everything. And he used to walk down to the Bodleian in the mornings and come home about teatime.

Bigland, Percy; Falconer Madan (1851-1935); Bodleian Libraries

Well, on the way to the Bodleian this time, he dropped a note in addressed to Professor Herbert Hall Turner. [He was director of the Director of the Radcliffe Observatory at Oxford ] But Professor Turner didn’t actually get it until the next day because he was up in London at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, trying to think of a name!

CG So they were debating it up there?

VP Oh, they were, yes. And anyway, the next day, my grandmother and grandfather told him they would pay for a telegram to the Lowell Observatory in America.

The telegram sent by Prof. Turner to the Lowell Observatory, Arizona

VP Professor Turner thought it was a good idea, and sent a telegram on our behalf. Of course, it was entirely the decision of Lowell Observatory what it was called. But there were some very fortunate things about the suggestion. I rather believe the name Pluto had been used for a comet which had failed to reappear when it should have. And they also liked the fact that Pl in Pluto tied in with P L for Percival Lowell [who had founded the Observatory specifically with the hope of discovering this planet]. So, the Observatory accepted the idea, and eventually said that as far as they knew, I was the first person to have suggested it.

CG Do you remember what prompted you to say Pluto?

VP Absolutely no idea! I suppose, knowing the names of the planets, and knowing a certain amount of mythology. We had in particular one rather good practical astronomy lesson [at school], which was to stand outside the university parks, and in the parks there is a wrought iron gate and it had a circle in it, which was roughly of a size that you could pretend was the sun, and we then took little bits of clay with us, and moulded them into shape, made them the appropriate size in relation to each other, and planted them out at the right relative distance for all the planets, at the right places. And by the time we got to Neptune we were at the other side of the parks, about a mile and a quarter away! So I do know roughly the relative size of the planets, even now.

It’s official! Pluto is named.

CG There have been some stories going round that there was some connection with the Walt Disney dog Pluto. When I looked up that on the Disney site it said the dog was named after the planet, not the other way round. Is that correct, do you think?

VP That is correct. Fortunately, yes. As far as the naming goes, though, most accounts are pretty idiotic. There’s a book called something like Brilliant Kids who made their Contribution to Science, and I am bracketed with people like Louis Braille, and the article is pure invention from start to finish.

CG Really?

VP Yes – they had the thesis that ‘you too might get to something if you work really hard.’ So I am portrayed as spending two or three days in the library…

CG Ah! So they didn’t want it to be a flash of intuition or inspiration?

VP Oh no, no! And then they said that I ‘went and told my father’, who’d been dead for five years! People tended to call me Plutonia after that!

CG Were you a bit of a local celebrity?

VP Hardly, I don’t think! My school enjoyed basking in it. And my grandfather handed me a five pound note, which was undreamed of wealth. He also gave the school a five pound note with which they bought a wind-up gramophone, and we had music appreciation lessons after that. But after Patrick Moore’s article, [he had written about Venetia in ‘The Naming of Pluto’, in the journal Sky & Telescope, Nov. 1984] the thing has slowly snowballed. The Americans got interested, and ever since, I’ve had interesting repercussions. There’s a school in Memphis, a private girls’ school, and one of their parents tracked me down. And I’ve got sixty-one letters from eight and nine year olds! Which were really great fun – they wanted to know my favourite colour, and did I like pets, and that sort of thing.

CG Are you still getting correspondence coming in now? Apart from people like me!

VP A certain amount. Have you been to the Leicester Space Centre? Because the chap who set it up was so interested in my having named Pluto, and tried to track me down. If he’d read the whole of Patrick Moore’s article, which he said he knew, he’d have found out that my [married] name was Phair and that I was living in Surrey. As it was, he started out from scratch, and he rang everybody he could find in the district of the name of Burney. There weren’t very many. And he then got into the local Oxford Mail. They had a big headline: ‘Venetia – Where are You?

The auditorium of the Sir Patrick Moore Planetarium, at the Leicester Space Centre

Anyway, eventually he traced me, and after the Planetarium was opened, I was invited to see it, and it really was a royal visit. I know now just what it’s like to be the Queen! I was introduced to every single person of the staff, and photographed, and I had to sign autographs. And when it actually came to seeing the Planetarium show, all doors were shut so that nobody could come in, and they ushered us in at the back to choose our seats. Then they let everybody else in. And of course he had to announce that I was there –

CG And everyone turns and looks!

VP Yes. I had to stand up and wave. And finally, I was taken to the part devoted to Pluto, to see a life-size photograph of me, the usual photograph at the age of 11, on the wall, with various supporting photographs, and a description.

CG It’s also like being a pop star for a day.

VP Yes, it was quite shattering. And we returned with whole carrier bags full of souvenirs. It was quite fun.

Venetia’s contribution is picked up by Punch magazine

CG Going back to the time of naming Pluto, I read that one or two other astronomers who had also put in the suggestion of Pluto were a bit annoyed to be pipped to the post by a young girl. Did you hear anything about that yourself?

VP Well, I heard that two Cambridge undergraduates had suggested it the day after. And there was a little bit in Punch – ‘Cambridge young ladies must look to their laurels’.

CG The name of a planet is a really significant thing and affects our sense of the whole mythology of the planets. So some people say that the name of the planet which is chosen is actually the one acceptable to us at the time. [I have an interest in what might be called the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the moment.] Do you think in any way you were a spokesperson for a name that was ready to pop out?

VP I’m sure the name was ready to pop out. I could also say that I was very, very lucky. Being in the right place at the right time was what it came to, with the right relations. But I didn’t feel particularly a spokesperson. The name was just an idle suggestion. But the interest in it has gone up steadily.

Venetia in her home during my visit

CG I’d love to know just a little bit about your life since then. You were a teacher? Is that right?

VP Well, I started by training – it took me two goes to get into Cambridge. I went up to Newnham in 1938. I read Economics, actually, and then I took articles to become a chartered accountant, which I did during the war, in London. I passed the exams after three years, all quite fun because for the intermediate exam we were somewhere in the City, and we were going down under our desks at intervals [presumably because of air raid warnings]. I gave that up when I got married at the very end of 1947, and we came to live in Epsom. My husband taught at Epsom College, and when our son was at prep school, I got a chance of teaching at a small private school. History –swatted up the day before! I mean, I knew some history of course. I’d done my entrance exam in history to get into Newnham. Anyway, I did that until the school packed up, and then I saw a part-time job for an Economics teacher at Wallington Grammar School. Fortunately, economics hadn’t changed very much since I came down! So I did that until I retired in 1983, when I was 65.

CG Did you have a continuing interest in astronomy?

VP Well, only in the way that it is incredibly interesting to think of these enormous distances, and so on. And to go out and recognise a few constellations, that sort of thing. But the idea of learning spherical trigonometry or whatever…

CG One thing too many!

VP One thing too many, yes.

At the end of our talk, Venetia told me that although she’d been interviewed by journalists on many occasions, no one had ever brought her flowers before. We subsequently exchanged Christmas cards, and I was very sad when I heard a few years that she had died, in April 2009.

A painting of Irises by my husband, artist Robert Lee-Wade, similar to the bunch I offered to Venetia, which sealed our brief friendship

A space mission to Pluto was launched in 2006, and conducted a 6 month reconnaissance flyby in 2015. From the data and photos collected, much more information has come to light about the planet. I believe Venetia was invited to attend the launch, but at her advanced age it wasn’t a practical proposition.

A simple student guide to Pluto can be found on the NASA website here, and mentions Venetia in the account of its discovery.

But is Pluto still a planet?
Pluto’s status has been kicked around like a football over the last fifteen years or so, and is officially demoted to dwarf planet status. But some call it a ‘small planet’. In 2014: ‘The decision did not sit well with the public. Some amateur stargazers and some astronomers thought it rather arbitrary. As the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics put it in a press release, “a dwarf fruit tree is still a small fruit tree, and a dwarf hamster is still a small hamster.”’

The Pluto flyby reconnaissance, which took place over six months in 2015, after being launched in 2006

And recently, this Center held a debate and let the audience vote. ‘The result: “Pluto IS a planet.”’ . However, it seems the argument is still unresolved, with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine coming out strongly in favour of Pluto’s planethood. For astrologers, Pluto is most definitely a planet with its own symbolic meaning in our solar system, so I shall continue to credit Pluto with this status.

The Christmas card I received from Venetia. The large, well-proportioned but cosy family home, set against the vastness of the sky, seems to encapsulate her Oxford childhood home, and her place in the history of astronomy.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

2 thoughts on “Venetia, the Woman who Named Pluto

  1. mindfullybertiebear

    Really enjoyed this Cherry. It also raised memories of my own.
    Burney … Fanny Burney who lived near Dorking.
    Wallington Grammar School . I went to to Sutton. who were the great local rivals .
    Randalls Grove .. where my wife took her last journey
    Pluto.. i am relieved the dog came later
    Totally irrelevant to your story but thats how the mind works

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cherrygilchrist

      Thanks! Trains of associations are very nice to follow…I arrived at Venetia’s house in the dark on a rainy evening, in the days before sat nav so it was a bit of a challenge finding my way there, and I didn’t have a chance to appreciate the locality.

      Like

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