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Louise Milone

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Ph.D. Candidate

My research frames the history of the steel industry through the toxic air it produced. I ask to what extent the steel magnates and the unions understood the environmental catastrophe the industry was creating. My research at university archives as well as work at the Donora Smog Museum and the Connellsville Historical Society, indicate they did. By the early decades of the last century, owners and managers of mills moved away from the smoke, while local farmers filed lawsuits as sulfur-laden, toxic effluent destroyed their land. The United Steel Workers, whose members suffered serious health consequences, became one of the leading advocates for the clean air movement, supporting every clean air act starting in 1963. However, late in the century, the rising fear of foreign competition muted but did not stop their actions. In the end, the steel industry followed its centuries long pattern and moved on to more efficient technology and cheaper production costs in Europe and Asia, leaving American steelworkers with nothing but failed lungs, hearts, and kidneys, and homes sitting on poisoned land. There is no “just transition” for the workers, no broad American discussion on mitigating the impact on them as steel production moves around the globe. Will there be such discourse in the United States as we make the requisite move from fossil fuels to clean energy? As of 2023, it appears not.

Research Interests:

Throughout their history, steel and iron makers have cleared forests, stripped mountains, chemically destroyed untold miles of vegetation, and poured trillions of tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases and poisonous heavy metals into the air, thereby also disabling and shortening the lives of millions of people who toiled in their mills and lived in their mill towns. Through most of that time, mill owners made billions by pushing the natural environment and their workers to their limit. Nonetheless, steel remains a seminal industry in America’s mythology of its earlier industrial greatness.Central to the myth is the image of the rugged steel man, muscular and commanding, who could withstand the furnace’s fire to bravely mold the metal that made the towering buildings, railroads that spanned a continent, and products that caused the Americans’ way of life to be the envy of the world. Looking at the 1940s and ‘50s videos of workers laboring in the mills, that image fades quickly. Thirty- year-old men look fifty. Many are second or even third generation steelworkers who have been laboring in the mills since they were 16. Poet Robert Gibb, born in a steel town and worked in a steel mill, calls it the “kingdom of heat,” where the “soles of shoes start to smolder.”

As historian David Brody points out in Steelworkers, in the early years of US steel production temperatures on the mill floor hit 125 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Sulfurs, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and ammonia, among other chemicals and metal particulates filled their workspaces as they were immersed in a cauldron of fire and molten metal spewing from machinery ten times larger than any man. They and their mill town families risked multiple carcinomas, respiratory disease, and renal failure, while lead and cadmium threatened their children’s futures. They were unaware of the full range of the risks their work and homes presented but they knew their reward could be a living wage, not easily had then or now by the working classes. In addition, those who romanticized the industry did not know there were months, sometimes years, when steel-working families coped with the financial insecurities of seasonal or economic slowdowns that made steel work precarious throughout its history. In the 1950s, the supposed halcyon days for American steel, there were three recessions, closing with one of the largest, most contentious steel strikes in US history in 1959. In 1956, correctly analyzing their economic situation and the potential future of the Japanese and Western European emerging industries, the United Steel Workers successfully bargained “Supplemental Unemployment Benefits” into their industry contracts. SUBs, as they were called, provided a year’s salary to workers who were laid off or unemployed because of long-term slowdowns or closures of mills (USW collection, Pennsylvania State University archives). As the US industry devolved, this was unsustainable for a profit driven corporation.

Recent work by historians Gabriel Winant (The Next Shift) and Gary Gerstle (The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order) have highlighted the role the 1950s played in the currents that are now roiling American economic, social, and political landscapes. This dissertation will continue this discourse around this important decade as it affected an iconic American industry that played a significant role in industrial air pollution and, therefore, climate change. Even today, with better technology and smaller land footprints, the international steel industry continues to contribute nine percent of the pollution that is trapping heat in our atmosphere. Yet, as environmental historian Joshua Howe so ably describes, society is still “behind the curve” despite the 1958 publication of Charles David Keeling’s graph that unambiguously described the rapidly increasing, heat trapping carbon dioxide in earth’s air (Behind the Curve).

Despite the current administration’s efforts to promote clean energy jobs, workers know from experience that as the nature of work changes, the promise of jobs in new technology is only for some. As the world moves through essential technological changes in the ways we produce and consume energy, it is unknown if American economic and political leaders will repeat the mistakes of twentieth century deindustrialization. What is a “just transition” for the millions of twenty-first-century workers who will find themselves in similar situations as technology changes in months, not decades? What does the world community do about the inevitability of the difficult transition to new technologies for workers schooled and experienced in the old? Those are the questions raised by the demise of US big steel.

A “just transition” is discussed in many forums, yet few solutions have risen from those discussions because any just transition requires commitment from government at every geographic level. The possibilities of dramatic transformations in the methods and mechanisms of future work demand an international consensus on how to address the injustice of worker dislocation when technological change overtakes old industries. The crucial transition from fossil fuel to green energy now shaking fossil fuel industries and their workers forces a current litmus test of a world commitment to workers, as well as environmental justice. I believe my dissertation’s examination of the American steel industry’s polluting history and disregard for workers’ health and well-being will be an efficacious addition to this discourse.


The Dorothy Foehr Huck Research Award, Pennsylvania State University

The Sam Fishman Travel Grant, Wayne State University

Dissertation/Thesis Title:
A Miasma of Metals: The History of Smog in a Pennsylvania Steel Town and the Making of Climate Change
Degree Completion Date:
Selected Publications:

" A Miasma of Metals: The Steelworkers’ Environmental Call Following the Donora Smog of 1948, Broadcast Sept. 2, 2022,


MA, Georgia State University, 20th Century US 2017

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Events featuring Louise Milone

Louise Milone will take oral comprehensive examinations via Zoom. Members of the university community are invited. If you wish to attend please contact the graduate program office in history for Zoom registration details.

Major Professor

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