She Named Pluto

Venetia Burney Phair was 11 years old when she suggested Pluto as the name of the newly discovered planet. Phair passed away April 30 in England, age 90.

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

How did she feel when the planet she had named was downgraded to a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union in 2006?

Phair told an interviewer she was not upset by the reclassification, “though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet.”

Pluto the planet and Pluto the dog both debuted in 1930, raising the natural question: who influenced who? No, young Venetia did not lift the name from a cartoon she’d seen at the theater — that would not have been possible. If anything, her choice of name for the newly-discovered planet inspired the character’s name. While Disney’s Pluto first appeared in a cartoon “The Chain Gang” released on August 18, 1930, the character wasn’t given a name until 1931.

In a 2006 documentary, Venetia said emphatically:

“The name had nothing to do with the Disney cartoon. Mickey Mouse’s dog was named after the planet, not the other way around.”

1 thought on “She Named Pluto

  1. I also would prefer that Pluto remain a planet in good standing. Thank you for adding to our astronomical lore, Ms. Phair. May you rest in well deserved peace.

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