From a rural gravel road to Vanderbilt
Billy Hudson grew up on a 15-mile gravel road in rural Arkansas. “My address was Grapevine, Arkansas. The street was 40th and Plumb, meaning 40 miles from town and plumb-back in the sticks, as we’d say,” he says with a chuckle.
|Billy Hudson joins a videoconference science lab beamed to a rural Maine school.
Hudson’s childhood chores in the 1940s and 1950s included tending to cotton and taking care of 20,000 chickens and other livestock. The physical labor was accompanied by regular and spurious beatings, which his father meted out with tree branches with the message that Hudson was never good enough.
Unable to stand his father’s abuse and threats of violence any more, Hudson decided at the age of 16 to drop out of high school to work on a cotton farm. His history teacher and basketball coach, Robert Theus, “knew I was going to destroy my life. He was the one who first showed me a light and how I might get out of my circumstances,” says Hudson. “There are champions who come into your life to help you. I was fortunate.”
Theus took Hudson to Henderson State Teachers College (now Henderson State University) in Arkadelphia, Ark., where Hudson was allowed to enroll without a high school diploma. There he met chemistry professor and mentor Haskell Jones, who encouraged Hudson to complete a college degree in chemistry. A cafeteria supervisor, Alice Sloan, made sure Hudson had jobs to earn room and board. After Hudson completed one year of college, his high school decided to award him an honorary diploma. Several other mentors guided Hudson into getting a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Iowa under the supervision of Rex Montgomery and Robert Barker. During that time, he studied carbohydrate chemistry.
The Vietnam War was on when Hudson graduated with his Ph.D. in 1966. He joined the army and was assigned to improve filtration membranes for dialysis machines at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Boston. It was work on the dialysis machines and a lecture by Robert Spiro of Harvard Medical School that got Hudson interested in diabetes and the havoc it wreaks on the kidneys. That interest has led to understanding the basement membranes of kidneys, which act as a filtration barrier. Diseases such as Goodpasture and Alport syndromes and renal failure arise when there are defects in the basement membrane. Hudson’s research led to the discovery of the α3 and α4 chains of collagen IV, which, along with the α5 chain, create the essential meshwork for kidney filtration. His work also has found its way into clinical applications. “Before there was such a thing as translational science, he was doing it,” notes Hanson.