Remembering Chemistry professor Joseph A. Sherma, Jr.


Sherma, who began teaching at Lafayette when he was 24 years old, was known for involving students in his numerous research projects. (Photo courtesy of Flickr)

By Aliana Mediratta, Contributing Writer

Joseph A. Sherma, Jr., retired department head and professor of chemistry, passed away due to health complications in Aug. 2021.

Sherma had a profound impact on the Lafayette community throughout his 63 years on campus, including his dedicated research work with students, professional guidance for other chemistry department faculty and the enthusiasm he brought to teaching.

Chemistry professor David Husic, who began his time at Lafayette in 1986 under Sherma’s direction as the chemistry department head, spoke fondly of his leadership.

“He was a mentor to me. He didn’t tell people what to do, but he set a positive example of how a faculty member can approach their position,” Husic said. 

Sherma was born in Newark, New Jersey, and attended Upsala College, where he graduated as a chemistry major in 1955 before receiving his Ph.D in analytical chemistry from Rutgers University three years later. Sherma initially began teaching at Lafayette in 1958 at just 24 years old as an instructor of analytical chemistry.

Sherma was promoted multiple times, becoming a full professor in 1974 and served as the head of the chemistry department from 1984 to 1997, in addition to achieving many accolades. In 1982, Sherma was named the Charles A. Dana Professor of Chemistry, a title that was replaced in 1991 when he was named the John D. and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry. Ten years later he became a Professor Emeritus.

Sherma had countless different contributions to the larger campus community outside of his department, including chairing three committees and serving on numerous others. He also lived in South College for five years as a faculty resident. 

Throughout his time at Lafayette, Professor Sherma was well-known for the research opportunities he gave to students. Sherma published 460 works and had 150 different students co-author at least one article with him. 

Husic emphasized that Sherma did extensive research work and really drew students into it, at a time when this was not necessarily the norm for other colleges and their faculty. “He was always happiest when he had a large group of students working with him,” Husic noted.

Although Sherma officially retired in 2000, Kenneth Huag, associate professor of chemistry, wrote in an email that “he had maintained a daily presence in the department with a student-centered active research program.”

Huag added that Sherma was incredibly committed to his work and he felt that he was doing his most significant work in the years before he had a stroke in 2019. 

Chip Nataro, professor of chemistry and current department head, added that among his numerous other accomplishments, “he was retired twenty years and yet was still in every day working with students.”

In October, Nataro wrote a resolution to Josh Smith, clerk of the Faculty, calling for a memorial for Sherma.