Born in South Bend, Indiana, he earned his degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. He made his first field study in the Australian outback in 1938 and returned periodically to study microevolutionary processes. He completed his doctoral degree at Harvard in 1941.
After teaching briefly at the State College of Washington, he served as an Army Air Corps officer in World War II. He taught anthropology at UCLA from 1948 until his retirement in 1974, continuing his research, and writing many articles and a widely used textbook on human evolution. His lifework was summarised in a monograph published in 1993 by Oxford University Press.
He died on 5 March 1994 in Santa Barbara of bone cancer.
He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946, and several of his field seasons in the Australia were financed by the Carnegie Corporation. He had a very mutually fertile 50-year collaboration with Norman Tindale of the South Australian Museum and University of Adelaide.
Others with whom he collaborated included: Earnest Hooton
Some of his publications included:
- Birdsell, Joseph, B. (1986). "Some predictions for the Pleistocene based on equilibrium systems among recent hunter gatherers". In Lee, Richard & Irven DeVore. Man the Hunter. Aldine Publishing Co. p. 239.
- Birdsell, Joseph 1987. Some reflections on fifty years in biological anthropology in Annual Reviews of Anthropology 16(1):1-12.
- Norman B. Tindale and Joseph B. Birdsell, "Results of the Harvard-Adelaide Universities Anthropological Expedition, 1938-1939: Tasmanoid Tribes in North Queensland", Records of the South Australian Museum, 7 (1), 1941-3, pp 1–9
- Tindale and Birdsell, "Tasmanoid Tribes in North Queensland"
- Joseph Birdsell, "A preliminary report on the trihybrid origin of the Australian aborigines", American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 28 (3), 1941, p 6
- J. B. Birdsell, "Preliminary data on the trihybrid origin of the Australian Aborigines", Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania, 2 (2), 1967, pp 100–55;
- Joseph B. Birdsell, "Microevolutionary Patterns in Aboriginal Australia", Oxford University Press, New York, 1993. (Review)
- J. B. Birdsell and W. Boyd, "Blood groups in the Australian Aborigines", American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 27, 1940, pp 69–90;
- Joseph Birdsell, "Results of the Harvard-Adelaide Universities Anthropological Expedition, 1938-39: The racial origins of the extinct Tasmanians", Records of the Queen Victoria Museum, II (3), 1949
- J. B. Birdsell, "Human Evolution: An Introduction to the New Physical Anthropology", Houghton Mifflin, Boston (1972) (Amazon, Google books)
- J. B. Birdsell, Carlton S Coon and Stanley M Garn "Races: a Study of Race formation in Man" (1950)
- Joseph Birdsell; UCLA Anthropologist Studied Aborigines, 9 April 1994, Los Angeles Times, accessed 3 March 2012
- Dr Joseph Bernard (sic) Birdsell, archives.samuseum.sa.gov.au
- Obituary, Joseph Benjamin Birdsell, Anthropology: Los Angeles, University of California: In Memoriam, 1994, texts.cdlib.org
- Keith Windschuttle and Tim Gillin (2002) The extinction of the Australian pygmies, Quadrant, reproduced at www.sydneyline.com
- Joseph Birdsell, 1938 - Joseph Birdsell, height 186 centimetres (six feet one inch), with twenty-four-year-old male of the Kongkandji tribe, height 140 centimetres (four feet six inches). The photograph was taken at Mona Mona Mission, near Kuranda, North Queensland, in 1938.
- Guide to Records, AA 689 Dr Joseph Bernard (sic) Birdsell; Photo gallery; SA Museum Archives