Joseph Benjamin Birdsell began his long career as a physical anthropologist in 1931 when he received a Bachelor of Science (in aeronautical engineering) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1935 Birdsell began working under the direction of Earnest A Hooton at the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University, and it was during this time in 1936 that Birdsell was first introduced to the Australian anthropologist Norman Barnett Tindale (see AA 338) which was the start of both a long professional association and personal friendship.
It was through the influence and encouragement of EA Hooten that Joseph Birdsell and Norman Tindale collaborated in the first joint venture Harvard and Adelaide Universities expedition of 1938-1939. This was one of the most ambitious and extensive anthropological surveys ever undertaken in Australia in which the party traveled approximately (18, 000 miles) 29,000 kilometers to visit almost every Aboriginal settlement and mission throughout eastern, southern and south-western Australia.
The Harvard and Adelaide Universities 1938-39 expedition involved collecting highly detailed data from over three thousand individuals which included physiological measurements, sociological, genealogical and environmental data and as well as photographs and interviews. The collection of detailed genealogies represented a significant change in the tradition of social anthropology towards developing a comprehensive contextual picture of the interrelationship of Aboriginal life in and with the Australian environment.
The Board of Anthropological Research (see AA 346) expedition party included Norman and Dorothy Tindale, and Joseph and his first wife Bee Birdsell. Dorothy and Bee served as secretaries and research assistants to the party. Birdsell noted affectionately that that Tindale "raised me like a brother in the field."
In 1941 Birdsell returned to the United States to complete his Doctorial Thesis at Harvard University entitled The Trihybrid Origin of the Australian Aborigines. Birdsell then went on to teach at the State College of Washington, Pullman, until the outbreak of the Second World War during which he served in the United States Air Force using his specialist anthropometric skills in the Personal Equipment Laboratory. In 1947 Birdsell began his tenure at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology (later Department of Anthropology) at University of California, Los Angeles.
The second major collaboration between Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell was the University of California Los Angeles Expedition of 1952-1954 which continued the ambitious aim of the Harvard and Adelaide Universities expedition of 1938-1939 that had been interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Continuing the extensive survey of Aboriginal settlements and missions this time the extending the expedition into northern and southern Western Australia and western South Australia. The Board of Anthropological Research expedition party included Norman and Dorothy Tindale, and Joseph and his second wife Ester Birdsell and Phillip Judd Epling (a student at the University of California).
The genealogical, sociological and photographic data from thousands of individuals across Australia collected on the Board for Anthropological Research expeditions of 1938-1939 and 1952-1954 has become a unique resource at the South Australian Museum and has formed the foundation of Aboriginal Family History project.
Birdsell was an active member of many professional societies as well as being published in numerous professional journals. He was the author of the popular textbook Human Evolution: An Introduction to the New Physical Anthropology (1972) as well as Microevolutionary Patterns in Aboriginal Australians: A Gradient Analysis of Clines (1993), and collaborating with Carlton S Coon and Stanley M Garn in Races: a Study of Race formation in Man (1950).
The professional affiliation and close personal friendship of Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell continued years after their field expeditions, and when Norman Tindale retired form the South Australian Museum in 1965 he took up residence and a teaching position in the USA. A further opportunity to work together offered itself in 1973 when Joseph Birdsell was awarded a Research Fellowship at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Joseph Birdsell retired as Professor Emeritus from the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1974. Working on numerous manuscripts till the very end, Joseph B Birdsell died in Santa Barbara, California on the 5 March 1994 at the age of 85. He was survived by his third wife Röselin Auf der Heide Birdsell, and his son John A Birdsell.
As well as donating a generous bequest, Joseph B Birdsell bequeathed his field notes, journals, correspondence and photos with Australian content to the South Australia Museum.