African American anthropologist Joseph Allen Towles (1937-1988) met British anthropologist Colin Macmillan Turnbull (1924-1994) in 1959. The two exchanged marriage vows in 1960 and they lived together in an interracial, homosexual relationship until Towles' death in 1988. Towles and Turnbull spent various periods of time in Africa, conducting fieldwork on the Mbuti, Mbo, and Ik peoples. Turnbull authored The Forest People, The Mountain People, The Human Cycle, and Tibet. Turnbull succeeding in publishing Towles' work posthumously: Nkumbi Initiation and Asa: Myth of Origin of the Blood Brotherhood Among the Mbo of the Ituri Forest. Both Towles and Turnbull died from complications related to AIDS.
The collection contains eight different series of materials that document various aspects of the lives and careers, both separately and together, of Colin Turnbull and Joseph Towles. Anthropological research files focus mostly on their field work on the Mbuti and Mbo pygmies of the Congo area and the Ik of Uganda. Professional papers document their work in academic and museum settings. There are personal papers of their domestic life; fictional writings of Joseph Towles; a professional and personal photograph series; personal and professional films and audio tape, including materials documenting their African fieldwork and association with the camp of Patrick and Anne Putnam; slides documenting African fieldwork and travels; and a series documenting the collection itself. Despite the fact the majority of materials document the life and achievements of Colin Turnbull, this collection, holding both Turnbull's and Joseph Towles' papers, is named for Joseph Towles at Turnbull's request. There is also a separate collection of African, religious, and domestic artifacts collected by them.