Monday, August 10, 2009

Daughter of Biblical Scholar Who Named Pluto

I always go first to the obituaries page when reading The Times and there is often material of interest. This is one I have been meaning to blog for a while. In May, The Times published the obituary of a certain Venetia Phair (1918-2009):

Venetia Phair: gave the planet Pluto its name

The obituary tells the delightful story of how the eleven year old came up with the name for "Pluto":
Venetia Phair won fame in 1930 when she suggested that a newly discovered far-distant planet in the solar system should be called Pluto, after the classical god of the underworld.

She was 11 years old. The ninth planet in the solar system had just been discovered by Clyde W. Tombaugh, a young American working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was 8.05am on March 14, 1930, and Venetia Phair, née Burney, was taking breakfast with her mother and grandfather.

Her grandfather, Falconer Madan, the retired head librarian of Bodleian Library in Oxford, was reading the newspaper. As he turned the pages he came across the report about the ninth planet, as yet unnamed, and how it had been captured by camera for the first time. The murky images vindicated those who, since the 19th century, had believed that another planet lay beyond Neptune.

In a short documentary entitled Naming Pluto, recently released by Father Films, Phair later recalled: “My grandfather as usual opened the paper, The Times, and in it he read that a new planet had been discovered. He wondered what it should be called. We all wondered. And then I said, ‘Why not call it Pluto?’.”

With a shrug of her shoulders Phair also told the film-makers: “And the whole thing stemmed from that.” . . .
Now there is a feature there that one might easily miss. The name "Venetia Phair" reminds me rather of the name Sabrina Fair from the romantic comedy of the same name, but Venetia's maiden name was "Burney". A little further along in the obituary, we read:
Venetia Katharine Douglas Burney was born in Oxford in 1918, to the Rev Charles Fox Burney, professor of Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford and Ethel Wordsworth Burney.
So Venetia Phair, it turns out, was the daughter of C. F. Burney (1868-1925), a scholar renowned for his interpretation of both Testaments, and perhaps most famous for his influential book The Poetry of Our Lord: An Examination of the Formal Aspects of Hebrew Poetry in the Discourses of Jesus Christ (Oxford: Clarendon, 1925), though also well known for The Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1922), the latter available in toto on and Google books.

Sadly, C. F. Burney had been dead for five years when his daughter named Pluto. But her grandfather (and Burney's father-in-law), Falconer Madan, who is credited in the story above, was at the time "finalising his definitive bibliography of Lewis Carroll", according to a certain Selwyn Goodacre in Lives Remembered.

No comments: