Updated: Wednesday, February 28, 2018, 6:05 PM
As a child growing up in Oklahoma and Texas, Jon S. Akins wanted to help the disabled. He had seen his grandfather, who was diabetic and an amputee, struggle to make a prosthetic limb work. It never did, due to chronic healing problems.
Later, Dr. Akins became an authority on human movement biomechanics, a field of study at Widener University. Last fall, he announced a $140,000 clinical trial of a special lining that scientists hope will control the climate inside a prosthetic socket, ensuring better skin and tissue health.
Dr. Akins, 36, who made a career out of helping the disabled, took his own life on Friday, Feb. 23. He was found unresponsive at his home in Haddonfield.
His wife, Nancy E. Potter, said Dr. Akins, an assistant professor at Widener and the father of children ages 2 and 3, gave no indication that anything was wrong. “It came out of the blue,” she said.
“He was a beloved professor, and the university is in mourning over his loss,” said Widener communications director Mary Allen.
Born in Tulsa, Okla., Dr. Akins lived there until he was 9 and he and his family moved to Grapevine, Texas. He graduated from Colleyville Heritage High School outside Dallas and went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Oklahoma State University in 2003.
He completed a master of science degree in bioengineering in 2008 and a doctorate in bioengineering in 2013, both from the University of Pittsburgh. He also pursued a year of advanced rehabilitation research training in 2013 at Pitt.
The goal of his research was to prevent injury and improve the mobility of amputees by developing new technologies and rehabilitative strategies, Dr. Akins wrote online in describing his work. He collaborated with other academics and those who create and fit prostheses. He also wrote and lectured widely.
“Dr. Akins was an exceptional teacher, a respected colleague, and a cherished friend,” Widener said in a statement. “His research was selfless in its dedication to improving the lives of people who live with disabilities. He challenged his students by believing in them, and pushing them to surpass their own expectations. His legacy will be the positive change they bring to the world.”
At Widener, Dr. Akins was overseeing students conducting research projects. One such study focused on a magnetic device to improve prosthetic alignment.
The ongoing study announced last fall and funded by a $140,000 federal grant was a collaboration between Dr. Akins and faculty in the department of rehabilitation science and technology at Pitt.
Dr. Akins and his students were seeking to improve prosthesis liners in patients who had sustained pressure sores and accidental falls due to overheating and sweating. The problem has existed for decades.
“These individuals cannot use their prosthetics until their wounds are healed, and thus their livelihood is affected,” Dr. Akins said in an October 2017 account of his work. “We want to help these individuals by preventing this type of injury and encourage them to wear their prosthesis for longer to help improve their quality of life.”
In 2016, he started a STEM robotics league for underserved youth in Chester. Students in grades 7 to 12 at Chester Upland High School were invited to learn engineering principles and compete with a robot they constructed in a national contest.
“This was an important part of his life,” his wife said. “He increased the number of students in the scientific field who usually are under-represented. Not only was he building for high school; he also recruited students at Widener to teach the importance of lifting up students who may or may not be like you.”
As a husband, Dr. Akins was very supportive of his wife’s career as a civil rights lawyer.
As a dad, he often would get up at night to feed their sons when they were infants. “He was a loving, affectionate father and a co-parent very involved in their lives. He was just beloved by his kids,” his wife said.
He valued learning and using what he learned to build a better world, his wife said. “What was so important about his work was not how much how money he made or publications he wrote. It was about how many people he could help,” she said.
Dr. Akins enjoyed running, commuting by bike to work, and being outdoors.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Akins is survived by sons Oliver and Theodore Potter Akins; parents Gary and Suzy Akins; grandmother Betty Jones; a twin brother; a niece; and two nephews.
A memorial Mass will be at 1 p.m. Friday, March 2, at Christ the King Roman Catholic Church, 200 Windsor Ave., Haddonfield. Interment is private.
Contributions may be made to the Akins children’s education fund. Checks may be written to Oliver and Theodore’s Education Fund, c/o TD Bank, 100 N. Haddon Ave., Haddonfield, N.J. 08033.
For suicide prevention information, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.