To: Josh Smith, Clerk of the Faculty
From: Chip Nataro, Chair of the Memorial Resolution Committee
Re: Memorial Resolution for Larkin Professor Emeritus Joseph A. Sherma, Jr.
October 12, 2021
“Lafayette College – The Chem. Dept. announces the appointment of Dr. Joseph A. Sherma, Jr. as Instructor of Analytical Chemistry. Dr. Sherma received his B.A. at Upsala and his Ph.D. at Rutgers. His thesis was in the field of chromatography.” This statement appeared in the September 1958 issue of The Octagon, the newsletter of the Lehigh Valley Section of the American Chemical Society. And those short and simple words were so befitting of who Professor Sherma was, and yet not at all representative of the iconic figure he would become.
Joe Sherma was born in Newark, NJ in 1934. He graduated from Upsala College in 1955 as a chemistry major. From East Orange, New Jersey he moved to Rutgers, where he obtained his Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry in 1958. While at Rutgers he held a one-year teaching assistantship and then a Dow Chemical Co. research fellowship for two years. Following completion of his degree, he came to Lafayette as an instructor in the fall of 1958. In the summer of 1959 he was a visiting instructor at Adelphi College, now University. At Lafayette he was promoted to Assistant Professor in the fall of 1959, followed by promotion to Associate Professor in 1963, and Professor in 1974. In 1982 he was named the Charles A. Dana Professor of Chemistry. In 1991, he was named the John D. and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry. During his time at Lafayette he also did summer research at Argonne National Lab, Iowa State University and Syracuse University. In 2001 he would change titles at Lafayette for the last time when he became the John D. and Frances Larkin Professor Emeritus of Chemistry. Although retired, Joe continued working and was in his office nearly every day until he had a stroke in November of 2019. Of all of the emptiness in Hugel over the ensuing two years as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was his office being dark that was the hardest adjustment. Joe passed away in August of 2021.
Over the span of 63 years at Lafayette, Joe made enormous contributions to the college. Joe was a member of the department under one-third of the College’s presidents. He served as the Head of the Chemistry Department for 13 years from 1984 to 1997. He chaired the Scholastic Standing, Advanced Studies and Research, and Library Committees at various times and also served on the athletics, faculty review, curriculum, student evaluation, honors and awards, schedule, and appointments and promotions committees. He also served as a faculty resident, spending his first five years at the College living in South College. Joe received numerous accolades during his career including the Jones Faculty Lecture in 1968, the Jones Award for Superior Teaching and Outstanding Scholarship in 1971, the E. Emmet Reid Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Middle Atlantic Region of the American Chemical Society in 1988, the Mary Louise Van Artsdalen Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Achievement in 1989, the American Chemical Society Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution in 1995, and along with Kreider Professor Emeritus of Biology Bernie Fried, was the inaugural recipient of the Delta Upsilon Distinguished Teaching and Mentoring Award in 1999. The transcript of his Jones Faculty Lecture entitled “Chromatography – Handmaiden of Scientists” is available in the archives and is a most interesting read.
Joe had impeccable style, wearing a suit to work nearly every day. Upon his retirement he would occasionally dress down and wear a tie and a sweater. Legend has it that early in his career he wore a sweater and tie to a faculty meeting. After the meeting, the president at that time pulled him aside and explained how his attire was inappropriate for a meeting of the faculty and how he had best wear a suit to the next meeting. His colleagues in the late 1980s recall Joe’s amusement when a student arrived in costume at a Department of Chemistry faculty-student Halloween party impeccably dressed as Joseph Sherma, complete with baby powder-white hair, and Joe’s signature white handkerchief emerging from his suit jacket pocket.
But what Joe is most remembered for in the department is his passion for doing research with his students. His first paper from Lafayette was published in 1961, and not surprisingly, it included a student co-author. Even after his retirement, he continued working with students and his last two publications came out in 2020. Undoubtedly, there remains some work that will sadly never be published. In total, Joe had over 460 publications, an absolutely remarkable number, including scientific papers, chapters, and books. Many of these included student co-authors with over 150 different students coauthoring at least one article with Joe. Joe’s research interests started with analysis of pesticides by chromatography, but over the course of his career spanned the analysis of food additives, pharmaceuticals and metals. But the largest percentage of his work was in collaboration with Professor Fried. Bernie’s studies included the biochemical changes associated with parasitic flatworm infections in snails during their life cycles, and Joe applied his bioanalytical chemical expertise to characterize and quantify the biochemical changes associated with infection. They first published together in 1982, and over the course of the next 36 years produced 163 publications, many with student co-authors. Joe always had time for his research students and one would often walk past his office and see him eagerly engaged with students discussing research results or a publication.
Joe received research funding from a variety of sources over the years. He received one of the inaugural Faculty Summer Research Grants from the College for $1,200 in 1963. He also received other funding from Lafayette, Sigma Xi, the National Science Foundation and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. When he took over as Department Head of Chemistry, he advocated with the Provost for enhanced departmental funding, and was integral in the development of the EXCEL Scholars Program. His stated vision was “to elevate the Chemistry Department into a Premier Research Department” and the current and future faculty have, and will, continue to benefit from his tireless work in this matter. Several years ago, the Sherma Scholars Fund was established to provide additional students with the opportunity to participate in research in the Department of Chemistry. From his letter to then-President Rothkopf announcing his American Chemical Society Award, Joe stated, “Although I have no interest in receiving personal acclaim through this award, I hope it can be widely publicized to achieve the greatest benefit for Lafayette College and the Chemistry Department. It occurs to me that it might be used as evidence of the quality of our program for the recruitment of students, granting agencies, and alumni and foundation fund-raising purposes.”
Joe was a member of the American Association of University Professors, American Chemical Society, Sigma Xi, and Phi Lambda Upsilon. He served as a reviewer for several journals, a member of the advisory board for the Journal of Planar Chromatography and was co-editor for the Journal of AOAC International. He gave numerous lectures and presentations at other institutions and had significant industrial consulting experience. Joe served as Project Director for the National Science Foundation undergraduate instructional scientific equipment grants and served on many panels.
On a personal note, he loved to go to New York City with his wife, Anita, to take in various shows. He was also a long-suffering fan of the Mets and the Jets. In his later years, he took great pride in his grandchildren and enjoyed making plans for weekends they would be visiting. He was also an avid golfer and was a member at Harker’s Hollow in Phillipsburg, playing to 8 handicap. As time passed, Joe’s playing days came to an end. But he always enjoyed spending Father’s Day watching the final round of the U.S. Open with his son, James.
It was his love of golf that introduced Joe to a young Barry Sleckman. Barry, currently the Director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, recounted his interactions with Joe. “I was only able to be admitted part-time to Lafayette as my grades were not good enough due to my focus more on playing golf than my course work during high school. A local golf pro told me of a friend of his, Joe Sherma, who was a professor at Lafayette and who I should stop by and see. So, I did. I told Dr. Sherma of my plan and my hopes that I would do well enough in general chemistry that I was taking for credit and general biology that I was auditing as I could take only one course for credit but where I planned to take all of the exams. I believe that Dr. Sherma was skeptical, but he kept tabs on me and at the end of the semester I had done well in both classes and he and Dr. Chase in the Biology Department went to the Admissions Director and lobbied for my acceptance as a full-time student, which I became in January 1981. I decided that if I wanted to go to medical school, I better do some research. I wasn’t sure what this meant at the time, but I asked Dr. Sherma if I could work for him since he and Dr. Fried in the Biology Department seemed to be the most serious about research, whatever that was. Dr. Sherma agreed and my first project was to work on separating amino acids by thin-layer chromatography. I remember reporting for work, learning about how I would set up the experiment and asking him what the result would be. I figured he would know like the labs I took with courses where the expected outcome of the experiments was always known. He looked at me rather puzzled and said, ‘I do not know what you will find, nobody does, that is why you are doing it to figure it out.’ I remember going home that evening and thinking how amazing it was that the next day I would do an experiment to figure out something that nobody knew. This experiment was the beginning of the end of my plan to become a private practice surgeon. I quickly became addicted to research with Dr. Sherma as a mentor. I applied to MD/Ph.D. programs entering Harvard’s program in September 1983 as a Ph.D. student in Immunology. I owe a lot to Dr. Sherma. He believed in me when others did not, he opened doors that allowed me to see what I really wanted to do with my life. I have a picture of Dr. Sherma and I taken almost 40 years ago at a bench in a laboratory in the original Olin Hall that hangs on the wall of my office right by the door. Every day, it reminds me of his remarkable influence on my life.”
Madam President, on behalf of the Memorial Resolution Committee, Larkin Professor Husic, Associate Professor Emeritus Nutaitis and Deborah Bastinelli, I move that this memorial be filed with the minutes of the meeting and that copies of it be sent to Professor Sherma’s wife, Anita, son James, and daughter, Karen.