Oleg D. Sherby, professor of materials science and engineering, dies at 90

Hailed for the discovery of superplastic steel, Sherby was a professor at Stanford for 30 years. He was known on campus for his affable manner and for organizing volleyball matches and poker games.

Oleg Dimitri Sherby, a professor emeritus at Stanford best known for his discovery of superplastic steel, died Nov. 9 at his home in Menlo Park. He was 90 years old.

Sherby was born in 1925 in Shanghai, China, to parents who had fled Vladivostok, Russia, a year earlier amidst the Russian Revolution. He was 13 when his family emigrated once again, this time to escape the Japanese bombing of Shanghai. The family settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Sherby attended the University of California, Berkeley, and after brief service in the U.S. Army earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and doctorate in metallurgy. He was a National Science Foundation Fellow at Sheffield University (1956-57) and then scientific liaison officer in metallurgy with the U.S. Office of Naval Research, London (1957-58).

Oleg Sherby

Oleg Sherby (Image credit: Courtesy of Pamela McCroskey)

In 1958, Sherby joined the Stanford faculty in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, where he taught for 30 years until he was named professor emeritus in 1988.

Faculty colleagues remember him as an inspiring teacher who enjoyed hosting the occasional poker party.

“The enthusiasm he exuded in his dealing with people came through in his teaching and his students appreciated that,” said William Nix, professor emeritus of materials science and engineering. “He had a joy for life that spilled over into what everyone else was doing. It is what made him such a wonderful colleague.”

David Barnett, also a professor emeritus of materials science and engineering, described Sherby as an excellent researcher, teacher, mentor and colleague.

“I remember his most optimistic outlook and his kind smile,” Barnett said. “He was the most decent of men.”

A pioneer in superplasticity

As a researcher, Sherby made important contributions to understanding the mechanical properties of materials. He was a pioneer in discovering the atomic mechanisms controlling “creep,” the slow deformation of metals and ceramics at high temperature. He was the co-holder of eight U.S. patents, the author or co-author of 340 publications, the technical editor of two books and the co-author of a text on superplasticity in metals and ceramics.

“Oleg was a brilliant and creative man,” said Jeff Wadsworth, president and CEO of Battelle, who co-authored more than 100 papers and a book with Sherby and was a close family friend. “Publishing work with him was a unique experience because he had a remarkable attention to both the big picture and to details.”

It was in the field of superplasticity that Sherby left his most enduring mark.

Superplasticity is a phenomenon in which, under certain conditions, metallic and ceramic alloys can be stretched, as Sherby liked to say, “like well-chewed chewing gum.”

After superplasticity was first discovered in alloys of copper and aluminum, a race began to replicate this property in steel, to create a metal that could be molded like taffy yet formed into strong finished shapes, eliminating much of the welding, cutting, machining and grinding that account for about 30 percent of the cost of steel structural products.

Sherby and his colleagues won that race by rejecting the prevailing recipes in metallurgy that called for adding just a pinch of carbon to steel, to make it hard without becoming brittle. Instead they added far more carbon to their molten steel than was typical, then rolled or forged the alloy as it cooled, allowing the steel to be hardened at room temperature without brittleness.

The resulting successful process led to a patent for what came to be called ultrahigh carbon steel. But what delighted Sherby almost as much as that achievement was his subsequent discovery that he and his colleagues had replicated the lost art of making what had been called Damascus steel.

This aspect of Sherby’s work was described in a 1981 article in the New York Times. The article described how the Stanford team’s modern methods produced the same carbon-rich steel used during the Crusades. As Times science writer Walter Sullivan wrote, “Swords of this metal could split a feather in midair, yet retain their edge through many a battle.”

A lasting legacy

Elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1979, Sherby was the recipient of numerous awards and honors from all the major materials science communities.

Even after he became an emeritus professor in 1988, Sherby remained a prolific researcher. Chol Syn, a retired materials scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a close friend, started collaborating with Sherby in 1989, and over the next 25 years they co-authored, along with Don Lesuer, about 50 papers together.

“I learned so much from him, not only in materials science, but also in how to think and live,” Syn said.

Sherby had a lifelong passion for athletics. While an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, he played soccer and ran track, and at Stanford he was known for organizing noon volleyball games for faculty and students alike.

Drafted into the U.S. Army during his senior year at Berkeley, Sherby was honorably discharged in 1946. He met his future wife, Juanita Slater, at a dance in Berkeley in 1948, and they married in September 1949. Their union was a happy one, lasting 40 years until Juanita’s death in 1989.

Sherby is survived by his four children: Lawrence of Palo Alto; Pamela of Palo Alto; Stephen of Roseville; and Mark of San Jose; and by nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He was followed in death by his second partner, Marilyn Kazemi, and they are survived by her daughter, Leila, of Roseville and her two children.

The family is grateful to Alice Mafi, who provided loving care for their father during the last two and a half years of his life.

A private family gathering and memorial service will be held at later dates.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial donations be made to donors’ favorite charities.