James Hudson was born on 13 October 1854, in Clerkenwell, London, England, the son of artist Charles Hudson and his wife, Emily Jane Carnal. James attended Devizes Grammar School and at 14 became apprenticed to a doctor in London. He graduated MB in 1879 from the University of London and gained his MRCS and LSA. Hudson practised for a short time in England, then for two years near Kimberley, Cape Colony, South Africa. He served as a surgeon during the Zulu war of 1879.
In 1880 James Hudson emigrated to New Zealand, arriving at Wellington on the Caroline on 29 April; he settled in Nelson and set up what was to become a highly successful private practice. On 5 July 1886 at All Saints' Church, Nelson, he married Beatrix Jane Andrew, daughter of J. C. Andrew, former headmaster of Nelson College; they were to have 11 children.
Hudson was closely involved in the affairs of the Nelson community. He became secretary of the Nelson Philosophical Society in 1883, and from 1882 to 1885, in company with Bishop A. B. Suter and other prominent citizens, extensively explored the forests and mountains of Nelson and Marlborough. He was a member of the Nelson City Council from 1901 to 1905.
In 1905 Hudson was appointed district health officer for Nelson and Marlborough. His duties included care of the Maori at their settlement at Delaware Bay; on one occasion, during a severe measles epidemic, he is said to have clashed with a tohunga over the proper method of treatment. From 1902 to 1907 he was doctor to the orphanages at Stoke and Nelson.
Hudson attended the inaugural annual conference of the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association held at Nelson in 1897. He opposed the practice by which lodges and friendly societies employed doctors on contract to provide medical services to their members, and his stand received support from his fellow practitioners. In 1896 the Nelson Ancient Order of Foresters dismissed Hudson as their doctor for refusing to accept a reduced fee. The Nelson branch of the Medical Association forbade association members to take the position at a lower fee, and Hudson was replaced with a non-association member. Such disputes were symptoms of the battle over the professionalisation of medicine in New Zealand.
An energetic, able and dedicated doctor, Hudson was well known for his skilful operations for the removal of cataracts. Devoted to the science of medicine, he none the less stressed the healing power of nature, and encouraged healthy living. He was frequently called on to make mercy dashes, some far afield. He sympathised with the poverty of some settlers, and refused to charge a fee if it would cause real hardship.
Hudson retired to Hartmoor, Tapawera, in 1907, but the need for a resident doctor in the backblocks led him to return to practice. The strain of the travelling involved prompted the purchase of a motor car, in which he met his death in an accident on Spooner Range on 8 July 1912. Beatrix Hudson died on 12 February 1933.
Dr James Hudson was a short man with very blue eyes, thick red hair and a beard. A forthright and forceful personality, he did not suffer fools gladly, no matter what their social status. He was a figure of integrity and authority, esteemed for 'his real downright good heart and estimable qualities'. An active appreciation of art, astronomy, geography, science and medicine linked him with gifted colleagues. He and his wife were both devout and active members of the Anglican church, and a stained glass window in St James' Church, Tadmor, pays tribute to the 'beloved Physician'.