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January 25, 2018

Obituary: Samuel Hays

Samuel P. Hays, known as a pioneering environmental, social and political historian, died Nov. 22, 2017. He played a major role in reshaping the Department of History in the 1960s and 1970s as the department’s longtime chair and its first University Distinguished Professor.

Raised on his family’s dairy farm in Corydon, Indiana, Hays was a conscientious objector in World War II, an experience that put him to work with several federal conservation agencies and focused his interest further on society’s environmental impact.

Following his undergraduate degree at Swarthmore College in 1948, Hays earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, publishing an influential thesis in 1957, “The Response to Industrialism 1885-1914,” and following it with “Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency,” “Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985” and “A History of Environmental Politics since 1945,” among other works.

Hays joined Pitt in 1960 as history chair, a position he held until 1990. He established the Archives of Industrial Society at Pitt, founded with his collection of prime source material in the development of industry, which chronicled its environmental impact. He was president of the Urban History Association in 1992, receiving the first American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Distinguished Scholar award in 1997, and the Distinguished Service Award from the Organization of American Historians in 1999. The ASEH recently created the Samuel P. Hays research fellowship in his honor.

A tribute penned by Carnegie Mellon University faculty member Joel A. Tarr (who contributed to Hays’ volumes through the years), with several historians from around the nation, noted also that “Sam was an environmental activist, devoting long hours fighting to regulate environmental wrongs through the Sierra Club, testifying at hearings, and writing reports. … Throughout his career, Sam pushed the boundaries of his field, striving for clarity and challenging his colleagues to sharpen their analyses. His sometimes vigorous and exacting style could produce impassioned disagreements. Because the common goal always remained the enrichment of our collective enterprise, Sam Hays will be remembered as a major pioneer and shaper of environmental history.”

They also noted that “he influenced the profession by training dozens of graduate students and serving as a model for many young historians.”

Edward K. “Ted” Muller, an emeritus faculty member and Hays’ longtime colleague, recalled Hays’ major impact on sociopolitical history as well, for which he was an early adopter of statistical and other quantifiable analyses.

“He realized that, at the University, he had an opportunity to take his sociopolitical approach … in a rapidly industrializing city,” Muller said. “He saw Pittsburgh as a perfect laboratory, more for his students than for himself.

“He created not only a first-rate scholarly department, but he also created a department that got along — and that is critical in this day and age,” Muller added. “He ran the department and the meetings sort of like a Quaker meeting. You could speak out, and if you were junior, so be it.”

Another emeritus faculty member and colleague, Pete Karsten, noted the same collegiality that Hays fostered, adding that Hays could also take strong stands as well, defending the academic freedom of faculty – even visiting scholars.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara, children Polly, Peter, Michael and Becky Bragg and five grandchildren.


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