John William Akerman was the son of James Akerman, a Wesleyan minister, and his wife Elizabeth C. Long. John served an apprenticeship as an apothecary at Penzance, Cornwall, and became a founding associate of the British Pharmaceutical Association in 1843. Two years later he decided to become a doctor and after four years as an assistant he was offered a partnership. However, as a result of health problems he decided to emigrate to Natal in 1850 under the Byrne scheme. He first took up farming and experimented with the cultivation of cotton, but this was not a success. Moving inland to learn farming from the Voortrekkers, he ended up teaching their children English and set up a small school at Mooi River in 1851. In the process he learnt Dutch. In 1852 he published a pamphlet, Kort berigt over de kragten en het gebruik van de voornaamste huismiddelen (Short account of the powers and uses of the most important house medicines, Cape Town, 23p). It was aimed mainly at farmers and dealt with the contents of the medicine chest that Akerman supplied, and described him as a qualified apothecary. In about June 1852 he set up business as a chemist and druggist in Pietermaritzburg. He was listed as a licensed chemist and druggist at Pietermaritzburg in the Natal almanac for 1872, and was the sole proprietor of a much used essence for dysentery. In 1863 he wrote an article on "Medicinal and aromatic plants" that was published in the Natal almanac for that year (pp. 110-113). He also had a good knowledge of the geography and topography of Natal.
Akerman gradually became more active in public life and in politics, especially after his retirement from business in 1875. He was elected to the Pietermaritzburg city council in 1857 and was mayor in 1859. In 1863 and again in 1867-1868 he served as joint Vice-President of the Natal Society. He was elected a member of the Legislative Council of Natal in 1862, and represented the Pietermaritzburg constituency almost continuously for thirty years. From 1876 to 1891 he was a government nominee on the committee of the Pietermaritzburg Botanic Society, and from 1879 was its president for the rest of that period. In 1880 he became speaker of the Natal Parliament and served in this capacity for thirteen sessions. He was honoured as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in 1887.