Richard M. Townsend qualified as Bachelor of Medicine (MB) and Master in Surgery (CM) at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1888. Continuing his studies at the same institution he was awarded the degree Doctor of Medicine (MD) in 1891. That same year he came to the Cape Colony, where he was licensed to practice on 21 July 1891. He settled in Steytlerville and by 1897 had been appointed as additional district surgeon of Willowmore and Uitenhage. By 1899 he was district surgeon at Steytlerville.
By 1900 Townsend had moved to Bulawayo and in that year became a member of the Rhodesia Scientific Association. In April 1903 he presented his "Note on a parasitic fly (Bengalia depressa)" before the association. The paper was published in the Proceedings (Vol. 4, pp. 10-14) for that year. Townsend remained in Bulawayo until shortly before his death, but was no longer a member of the Rhodesia Scientific Association by 1918. He was first married to Rosina M. Jeffreys, who died in 1898. Subsequently he married Kate W. Haddon, and had five children.