Biographical Sketch of Elizabeth Maria (Bessie) Gifford Peckham

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Elizabeth Maria (Bessie) Gifford Peckham, 1854-1940

By Connor Senger and Layna Zahrt, students, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI

Author, librarian, entomologist, and National Woman's Suffrage Association member

Elizabeth Maria Gifford was born on December 19, 1854, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Charles Gifford, Milwaukee's first landscape architect, and Mary Caroline (Child) Gifford. In 1876, she earned her BS as one of the first science graduates of Vassar College in New York. She went on to work as one of the first librarians at the Milwaukee Public Library when it opened in 1878. In 1880, Gifford married George Peckham, an Albany, New York native who moved to Milwaukee with his family in 1853. The couple had three children together.

In 1916, Elizabeth Peckham was awarded a Ph.D. from Cornell University for her work as an arachnologist. Both scientists, the Peckhams taught, researched, and published together with their focus set on wasps and jumping spiders. They published their first paper together in 1883 and would go on to publish over 20 more. The salticid (jumping spider) genus Peckhamia and at least 20 species and one subspecies are named for them. The Peckhams' work on wasps and jumping spiders was the first of its kind and considered the authority due to the tremendous time and effort they spent studying and documenting the lives of these insects and arachnids.

Peckham was also active in organizations and causes outside of science. She was the first local president of the Milwaukee Branch of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae and was active in the women's suffrage movement as a member of the board of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In the latter role, she frequently testified before legislative committees. In 1911, she gave important testimony in support of the legislation that permitted the 1912 Wisconsin statewide referendum on women's suffrage in all elections. Although barely over five feet tall, Peckham was a commanding speaker and was known as the "little woman with the vigorous voice".

Elizabeth Gifford Peckham died of pneumonia in Milwaukee in February 1940 at age 85. The Peckham Society, founded in 1977 as an informal international alliance of amateur and professional naturalists or scientists with an interest in research related to the biology of jumping spiders, was named in honor of George and Elizabeth Peckham.


Bonta, Marcia. "Elizabeth Gifford Peckham." American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneering Women Naturalists. Texas A & M University, 1995.

"Elizabeth Gifford Peckham." Find A Grave.

"Elizabeth Gifford Peckham: Obituary." Milwaukee Journal, Feb. 13, 1940.

Pardini, Piscilla. Women Making a Difference: American Association of University Women in Milwaukee, 1894-2012. The Milwaukee Branch of the American Association of University Women, 2012.

"Peckham, Elizabeth Maria Gifford 1854 - 1940." Wisconsin Historical Society.

The Peckham Society.

Richman, David B. "George and Elizabeth Peckham." Peckhamia 1.1, Jan. 1977, pp. 3-5.

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