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Throughout his life Joseph Lexden Shellshear held various esteemed positions and contributed his knowledge and expertise in several fields. He was an army officer, archaeologist, medical scientist and general practitioner. He is best known for his research into the development of the nervous system and the study of the comparative morphology of the human skull and brain.

Shellshear was born in 1885 in Stanmore suburb of Sydney and was the third of eleven children. As part of his early career he was a Renwick scholar in medicine at the University of Sydney and for a year he was also a resident medical officer at Sydney Hospital. In 1908 he married and set up a medical practice in Albury, New South Wales.

During his service in the First World War he was quickly promoted to major and then 1st Colonel, given his previous experience as an artillery officer in the Militia. For his skills as a commander and for providing accurate fire, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1917. He continued serving in the Australian Army Medical Corps until 1920.

After the war Shellshear became a Rockerfeller Fellow at University College in London and also worked as a senior demonstrator in anatomy. His research interests included the embryology of the nervous system and anthropology. He was the Chair of Anatomy at the University of Hong Kong (1923–1936). During this time he carried out fieldwork in prehistory and became interested in the study of the brain of ‘modern humans’. Probably he assembled his collection of human ‘fossils’ and related stone artefacts at that time.

Shellshear returned to Sydney in 1936, and without a formal position, he worked, as honorary prehistorian at the Australian Museum. The following year he was appointed as research professor in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Sydney. He also continued as medical practitioner, working in radiology with his brother Kenneth in Macquarie Street until 1958.