Obituary

5th June 2009 at 01:00
Venetia Phair 1918-2009

The maths and economics teacher who named the planet Pluto when she was only 11 years old has died at the age of 90.

Venetia Phair suggested the name Pluto over breakfast with her grandfather, then went out to play. Six weeks later, astronomers officially adopted the title.

Born Venetia Burney in 1918, she was six years old when she lost her father, a professor of scripture, and was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Oxford.

Her grandfather, Falconer Madan, a retired librarian for the university's Bodleian Library, would regularly read out articles from The Times that he thought might interest his young granddaughter.

So, at breakfast on March 14, 1930, he told Venetia about the discovery of a planet beyond Neptune. The 11-year-old, who had a fondness for Greek and Roman myths, suggested the name Pluto. The Roman god of the underworld, she felt, had much in common with the dark, cold planet in the farthest reaches of the solar system.

(In later years, she attributed the suggestion to luck rather than skill: "There were practically no names left from classical mythology. Whether I thought about the dark and gloomy Hades, I'm not sure.")

Madan was sufficiently impressed by the idea that he mentioned it to his friend, Herbert Hall Turner, a professor of astronomy, who in turn passed it on to the astronomers who had discovered the planet. On May 1, 1930, the name Pluto was officially adopted. Madan presented his granddaughter with a Pounds 5 note as a reward.

Despite her precocious career in astronomy, Venetia chose to study maths at Newnham College, Cambridge. She graduated during the Second World War, then qualified as a chartered accountant.

While at Cambridge, she met Maxwell Phair, a classicist. They married in 1947; a son, Patrick, followed shortly afterwards.

In the 1950s, Venetia and Maxwell opted to pursue careers in teaching. For Venetia, who had grown up surrounded by academics, it was a natural choice. It also suited her temperament: she was renowned for her even temper and her keen interest in helping other people.

Her first job was as economics and maths teacher at Gloucester House School in Surrey. Later, she joined nearby Wallington County High. But her work with pupils did not end with the school day. Maxwell became housemaster at Epsom College, so his wife spent her evenings looking after the pupils in his house. She became a surrogate mother to the boys, who regularly sought her out in moments of stress.

She retired in the late 1980s. Not long afterwards, Maxwell became ill and was left semi-blind and crippled. His wife willingly took on the job of caring for him.

She was characterised by her indomitability. Until the age of 80, she drove across France each year in a camper van. And for more than 30 years, she worked as a volunteer at Epsom hospital. When, at 90, she was no longer able to drive, she commuted to the hospital by bus. Months before her death, she was still the first volunteer to arrive at the beginning of each session.

In 1987, the asteroid 6235-Burney was named in her honour. And, when the New Horizons spacecraft was sent to explore and photograph Pluto in 2006, it carried an instrument named the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter ("Venetia" for short).

That same year, Pluto was downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet, a change to which Venetia declared herself "largely indifferent". But she remained proud of her prepubescent achievement, was always glad to talk about it, and delighted in the recognition she received from television crews in later years.

Pride and indomitability, however, were not enough to keep old age at bay. In recent months, she suffered a series of minor strokes that limited her mobility. She died on April 30.

Venetia Phair is survived by her son, Patrick.

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