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Elizabeth Maria Gifford was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in December of 1854.  She was pretty much associated with her birth city for most of her life.  She graduated from Vassar College in 1876 and went into library work, becoming one of the first librarians in Milwaukee. She was fascinated with natural science, especially evolutionary biology.  She and George Peckham were married in 1880 and she became a talented collaborator for nearly all of Dr. Peckham's research (He had a LL.D. and an M.D, but apparently never practiced either law or medicine, opting instead to teach biology in the public schools). He had served in the Civil War and later became Superintendent of Public Instruction (1891-1897) for Milwaukee, and from 1897-1910 served as Director of the Milwaukee Public Library. He died in 1914 of a heart attack, but Elizabeth lived on until 1940, surprising B. J. Kaston and Pierre Bonnet by being able to supply photos of George and herself for the biographical part of "Bibliographia Araneorum" published by Bonnet in 1939.  She was a major leader in the women's suffrage movement, especially in Wisconsin, spending a lot of time testifying before the legislature in Madison during the early 1900s. A woman of just over five feet in height, she still had a commanding presence.

Apart from their various civic activities Elizabeth and George were pretty much inseparable from their marriage until his death.  They focused their cooperative research on the taxonomy, evolution and ethology of jumping spiders (Salticidae), on which they published 23 articles (one along with William Morton Wheeler), mostly through the Natural History Society of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. They published one paper each as single authors. Their final work was their monumental 1909 "Revision of the Attidae of North America," illustrated by J. H. Emerton.  The Attidae is now referred to as the Salticidae because of a nomenclatural conflict with the ant tribe Attini (leaf-cutting ants).

The Peckhams were champions of Charles Darwin's Theory of Sexual Selection and wrote a refutation of Alfred Russel Wallace's criticisms.  In addition they became heavily involved in the study of wasp behavior, publishing their research in a monograph "Instincts and Habits of the Solitary Wasps" which was popular enough to be republished with additional material by Houghton, Mifflin and Company in 1905 as "Wasps, Social and Solitary" with a foreward by John Burroughs. This was also illustrated by J. H. Emerton.  In their work on solitary wasps the Peckhams refuted J. H. Fabre's contention that wasps are automatons, always repeating exactly the same behaviors.  They instead discovered a range of behavior for wasps from their observations in the field.

A number of species were named for George Peckham (using the specific name peckhami). However, Theodore Dru Alison Cockerell honored Elizabeth Peckham with his 1897 description of the very beautiful, if tiny, jumping spider that he named Salticus peckhamae, with the type locality of Mesilla, New Mexico, near where I live!  The -ae ending specifically indicates that the spider was named for Elizabeth, not George.  The 3 mm-long spider is covered in metallic blue scales on its cephalothorax and metallic pink scales on the abdomen!

The Peckham Society, honoring both George and Elizabeth Peckham, was formed in 1977 at the University of Florida and is now publisher of an online journal -"Peckhamia."  The society is now based in South Carolina and is dedicated to the study of the over 5000 species of jumping spiders, worldwide. The Salticidae is the largest known family of spiders in number of species.  Elizabeth Peckham was one of the pioneers in the study of this fascinating family and arachnologists all over the world owe a great debt to her and her husband.


Elizabeth Gifford Peckham Obituary: Milwaukee Journal, February 13, 1940 - reprinted in Peckhamia  

Elizabeth Maria Gifford Peckham.

George Williams Peckham.

Muttkowski, R. A. 1914. George Williams Peckham. Entomological News . 25(4) 145-148.

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 04:53 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science, SciTech, Invisible People, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, Community Spotlight, and Headwaters.

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