Henry Bascom Collins, Jr., was born in 1899 in Geneva, Alabama. Upon receiving the B.A. in geology from Millsaps College in 1922, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to secure a field work position with geologist and Secretary of the Smithsonian, Charles D. Walcott. Collins joined instead the archeological field party exploring Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, under the leadership of Smithsonian anthropologist, Neil M. Judd, thus beginning a sixty-five year career in anthropology. Collins worked for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in 1923, but returned to the Smithsonian as aide in the Division of Ethnology, United States National Museum (USNM), from 1924 to 1925. After receiving his M.A. in anthropology from the George Washington University in 1925, Collins was appointed Assistant Curator of Ethnology, USNM. He advanced to Associate Curator in 1938 but the following year transferred to the Smithsonian's other anthropological unit, the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), as Senior Ethnologist. He served as acting Director of the BAE from 1963-1965, overseeing its dissolution and merger into the Department of Anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). He was Senior Scientist in the department from 1965-1966, and upon retirement, continued his research as archeologist emeritus until his death in 1987.
Collins' first exposure to archeological investigations was in the Southwest assisting Judd. When he began his own research, he shifted focus to Southeast prehistory, especially pottery types found in mounds. In 1927, however, Smithsonian physical anthropologist, Aleš Hrdlička sent his aide, T. Dale Stewart, and Collins on a field trip to Alaska. Fascinated by the area, Collins devoted the next sixty years to the study of Inuit prehistory. He was noted for his innovative interpretation of cultural sequences, based especially on his excavations at the Inuit village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. In 1936, he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences for this work. During World War II, he served as Director of the Ethnogeographic Board, an interagency liaison group which facilitated communications between academics and the military. Following the war, he was instrumental in establishing the Arctic Institute of North America, and from 1947 to 1967 served as Chairman of the committee responsible for producing the Arctic Bibliography.