Wurm was born in Budapest, the second child to the German-speaking Adolphe Wurm and the Hungarian-speaking Anna Novroczky. He was christened Istvan Adolphe Wurm. His father died before Stephen was born.
Both of his parents were multilingual, and Wurm showed an interest in languages from an early age. Attending school in Vienna and travelling to all parts of Europe during his childhood, Wurm spoke roughly nine languages by the time he reached adulthood, a gift he inherited from his father, who spoke 17. Wurm went on to master at least 50 languages.
Wurm grew up stateless, unable to take the nationality of either of his parent or of his country of residence, Austria. Thay enabled him to avoid military service and attend university. He studied Turkic languages at the Oriental Institute in Vienna, receiving his doctorate in linguistics and social anthropology in 1944 for a dissertation on Uzbek.
After reading some works by Sidney Herbert Ray, Wurm became interested in Papuan languages and began a correspondence with Arthur Capell, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of Sydney. Wurm began teaching himself Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu from books and took up a position in London.
In 1954, the Wurms moved to Australia, where Capell had organised for Wurm a post in the Anthropology Department at the University of Sydney. In 1957, the Wurms moved to Canberra, where Stephen took up a post as Senior Fellow within the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS, now Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs) at the new Australian National University (ANU). The same year, the Wurms received Australian citizenship. From then on, the main focus of Wurm's research was the study of the languages of New Guinea, but he also carried out research on a number of Australian Aboriginal languages.
At the Australian National University, he was Professor of Linguistics from 1968 to 1987. He was elected fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia in 1976.
In tribute to the scholarship of the man, the journal Oceanic Linguistics titled an article on Wurm "Linguist Extraordinaire".
In recognition of Wurm's outstanding contribution, the Stephen Wurm Graduate Prize for Pacific Linguistic Studies was inaugurated in 2008.
- Wurm, Stephen (1975). New Guinea Area Languages and Language Study: Papuan languages and the New Guinea linguistic scene. Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University.
- Wurm, Stephen (1972). Languages of Australia and Tasmania. Mouton.
- Wurm, Stephen (2001). Atlas of the world's languages in danger of disappearing. UNESCO. ISBN 978-92-3-103798-6.
- Kite, Suzanne; Wurm, Stephen (2004). The Duungidjawu Language of the Southeast Queensland: Grammar, Texts and Vocabulary. Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University. ISBN 978-0-85883-550-4.
- Wurm, Stephen; Mühlhäusler, Peter; Tryon, Darrell (1996). Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas: Vol I: Maps. Vol II: Texts. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-081972-4.
- Pawley 2002, pp. 1-2.
- "Emeritus Professor Stephen Wurm AM". Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Retrieved 25 May 2018.
- Pawley, Andrew (2002). "Stephen Wurm, 1922-2001: Linguist Extraordinaire". Oceanic Linguistics. 41 (1): 1–14. doi:10.1353/ol.2002.0026.
- "Stephen Wurm Graduate Prize for Pacific Linguistic Studies". Australian National University. Retrieved 25 May 2018.