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George and Elizabeth Peckham

George and Elizabeth Peckham

George William Peckham (March 23, 1845 - January 10, 1914) and Elizabeth Maria Gifford Peckham (December 19, 1854 - February 10, 1940) were early American teachers, taxonomists, ethologists, arachnologists, and entomologists, specializing in animal behavior and in the study of jumping spiders (Salticidae) and wasps.

Lives and careers

George Peckham was born in Albany, New York. At age 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in the American Civil War, reaching the rank of first lieutenant. After the war, he resumed his studies and earned his M.D. in 1872. Rather than practice medicine, however, he chose to teach biology at East Division High School of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1880 he organized the first American biological laboratory program in any high school. He married his colleague, Elizabeth Maria Gifford, one of the first science graduates from Vassar. In 1888, Peckham became principal of East Division, and in 1891, an inspector for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. In 1897, he became the director of the Milwaukee Public Library, in which position he served until retirement in 1910.

Natural science studies

Together, they introduced Darwinian concepts into secondary education and began their studies on the taxonomy and behavior of jumping spiders (Salticidae), a large group of visually-oriented spiders. They were among the earliest taxonomists to emphasize the value of behavior in classification. In 1889-1890 they published Observations on Sexual Selection in Spiders of the Family Attidae, and Additional Observations on Sexual Selection in Spiders of the Family Attidæ, with Some Remarks on Mr. Wallace's Theory of Sexual Ornamentation, among the first studies on sexual selection, supporting Darwin's concept against Wallace's alternative explanation of courtship behavior. In 1898 they produced On the Instincts and Habits of the Solitary Wasps, a work considered a scientific classic for its style as well as its scholarship. Unlike the later work of Fabre, which praised the supposed "perfection" of insect behavior, the Peckhams identified series of behaviors which were subject to natural selection.

The Peckhams were lifetime collaborators, as researchers and educators. From 1883 to 1909 they described 63 genera and 366 species. The North American Peckham Society is named after them. It is dedicated to salticid research; its irregular publication is titled Peckhamia.

Taxa named after the Peckhams

The salticid genus Peckhamia is named in their honor, along with at least 20 species and one subspecies:

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