Ludwig von Bertalanffy was born and grew up in the little village of Atzgersdorf (now Liesing) near Vienna. The Bertalanffy family had roots in the 16th century nobility of Hungary which included several scholars and court officials. His grandfather Charles Joseph von Bertalanffy (1833–1912) had settled in Austria and was a state theatre director in Klagenfurt, Graz and Vienna, which were important sites in imperial Austria. Ludwig's father Gustav von Bertalanffy (1861–1919) was a prominent railway administrator. On his mother's side Ludwig's grandfather Joseph Vogel was an imperial counsellor and a wealthy Vienna publisher. Ludwig's mother Charlotte Vogel was seventeen when she married the thirty-four-year-old Gustav. They divorced when Ludwig was ten, and both remarried outside the Catholic Church in civil ceremonies.
Ludwig von Bertalanffy grew up as an only child educated at home by private tutors until he was ten. When he arrived at his Gymnasium (a form of grammar school) he was already well habituated in learning by reading, and he continued to study on his own. His neighbour, the famous biologist Paul Kammerer, became a mentor and an example to the young Ludwig.
In 1918, Bertalanffy started his studies at the university level in philosophy and art history, first at the University of Innsbruck and then at the University of Vienna. Ultimately, Bertalanffy had to make a choice between studying philosophy of science and biology; he chose the latter because, according to him, one could always become a philosopher later, but not a biologist. In 1926 he finished his PhD thesis (Fechner und das Problem der Integration höherer Ordnung, translated title: Fechner and the Problem of Higher-Order Integration) on the psychologist and philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner. For the next six years he concentrated on a project of "theoretical biology" which focused on the philosophy of biology. He received his habilitation in 1934 in "theoretical biology".
Bertalanffy was appointed Privatdozent at the University of Vienna in 1934. The post yielded little income, and Bertalanffy faced continuing financial difficulties. He applied for promotion to the status of associate professor, but funding from the Rockefeller Foundation enabled him to make a trip to Chicago in 1937 to work with Nicolas Rashevsky. He was also able to visit the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.
Bertalanffy was still in the US when he heard of the Anschluss in March 1938. However, his attempts to remain in the US failed, and he returned to Vienna in October of that year. Within a month of his return, he joined the Nazi Party, which facilitated his promotion to professor at the University of Vienna in 1940. During the Second World War, he linked his "organismic" philosophy of biology to the dominant Nazi ideology, principally that of the Führerprinzip.
Following the defeat of Nazism, Bertalanffy found denazification problematic and left Vienna in 1948. He moved to the University of London (1948–49); the Université de Montréal (1949); the University of Ottawa (1950–54); the University of Southern California (1955–58); the Menninger Foundation (1958–60); the University of Alberta (1961–68); and the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY) (1969–72).
In 1972, he died from a heart attack.
Bertalanffy met his wife, Maria, in April 1924 in the Austrian Alps. They were hardly ever apart for the next forty-eight years. She wanted to finish studying but never did, instead devoting her life to Bertalanffy's career. Later, in Canada, she would work both for him and with him in his career, and after his death she compiled two of Bertalanffy's last works. They had one child, a son who followed in his father's footsteps by making his profession in the field of cancer research.