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In Memoriam: Dudley S. Childress, PhD

Dudley S. Childress, PhD, passed away on August 6, after a long illness. He was 79.

Childress was born on a farm near Archie, Missouri, the first child of Stephen T. and Virginia Dudley Childress. He was valedictorian of his class and an all-state player in high school. He won a football scholarship to the University of Missouri (Mizzou), Columbia, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1957 and a master’s degree in 1958. He married his wife, Nancy, in 1959. Childress served a two-year tour of active duty in the Army and four years of active reserve. He became an instructor and later an assistant professor in Mizzou’s Electrical Engineering Department. Childress then took a leave of absence to pursue his doctorate at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, Chicago, Illinois, which he earned in 1967-he was one of the first graduates of the biomedical engineering doctoral program. He was then offered a position in Northwestern University’s Prosthetics Research Laboratory (NUPRL) program as a prosthetics engineer-he was the first biomedical engineer appointed to a joint faculty position in the medical and engineering schools at Northwestern.

For four decades, Childress was a key figure in rehabilitation engineering and an internationally recognized leader in the field of prosthetics and orthotics research.

He was one of the founders of myoelectric control in the United States, having fitted the first self-contained and self-suspended transradial myoelectric prosthesis in 1968; it was the world’s first commercial system with proportional myoelectric control, in which the user controlled the speed of the fingers and the rate of change of grip force in proportion to the magnitude of the myoelectric signal. This control feature was critical to Childress’ later development of the Synergetic Prehensor, the first commercially available electric prehensor with physiological speed and grip force.

In the 1970s, he and his team were the first to design and commercially introduce the sip-and-puff wheelchair controller for persons with high-level quadriplegia. Another achievement occurred in 1998 when, with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) assistance, Childress and colleagues developed a state-of-the-art motion-analysis system dedicated to studies of prostheses, orthoses, and other ambulation and manipulation aids.

In more recent years, Childress worked to develop theories of walking that have been applied to improve the gaits of persons with limb loss. Childress and his team originated the idea of foot roll-over shape to describe a fundamental objective of the able-bodied foot-ankle system during gait, the principles of which enabled him and his colleagues to develop the Shape & Roll Prosthetic Foot, a simple, yet highly functional prosthesis for use in low-income countries.

Childress’ pioneering work led him to be elected in 1995 as a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. During his long career, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at McCormick, professor of physical and rehabilitation medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, director of the NUPRL and Northwestern’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research program, and a senior rehabilitation research scientist at the VA Chicago Health Care System. He has mentored more than 50 graduate students and 20 doctoral students during his career.

Childress’ achievements in the field of rehabilitation research and O&P have been acknowledged through numerous awards and honors. In 2002, received the VA Rehabilitation Research and Development Service’s Paul B. Magnuson Award, the highest honor given by the service. In 2004, he received the Mentor Award from the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America in recognition of his years of outstanding mentorship to numerous students who were training to become researchers. In 2005 he received the da Vinci Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2007 the Amputee Coalition Ernest Burgess Lifetime Achievement Award. And in 2010 he received the VA Rehabilitation Research and Development Service Lifetime Service Award.

Childress is survived by his wife and his sons Stephen and Malcolm.

A memorial service is planned for Saturday, September 20, at 2 p.m. at the Lake Street Church, Evanston, Illinois.

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