Sturgeon was born Edward Hamilton Waldo in Staten Island, New York in 1918. His name was legally changed to Theodore Sturgeon at age eleven after his mother's divorce and remarriage to William Dicky ("Argyll") Sturgeon.
He sold his first story in 1938 to the McClure Syndicate, which bought much of his early work. His first genre story was "Ether Breather", published by John W. Campbell in the September 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. At first he wrote mainly short stories, primarily for genre magazines such as Astounding and Unknown, but also for general-interest publications such as Argosy Magazine. He used the pen name "E. Waldo Hunter" when two of his stories ran in the same issue of Astounding. A few of his early stories were signed "Theodore H. Sturgeon."
Sturgeon ghost-wrote one Ellery Queen mystery novel, The Player on the Other Side (Random House, 1963). This novel gained critical praise from critic H. R. F. Keating: "[I] had almost finished writing Crime and Mystery: the 100 Best Books, in which I had included The Player on the Other Side ... placing the book squarely in the Queen canon" when he learned that it had been written by Sturgeon. Similarly, William DeAndrea, author and winner of Mystery Writers of America awards, selecting his ten favorite mystery novels for the magazine Armchair Detective, picked The Player on the Other Side as one of them. He said: "This book changed my life ... and made a raving mystery fan (and therefore ultimately a mystery writer) out of me. ... The book must be 'one of the most skilful pastiches in the history of literature. An amazing piece of work, whomever did it'."
Disliking arguments with Campbell over editorial decisions, after 1950 Sturgeon only published one story in Astounding. Sturgeon wrote the screenplays for the Star Trek episodes "Shore Leave" (1966) and "Amok Time" (1967, written up and published as a Bantam Books "Star Trek Fotonovel" in 1978). The latter is known for its invention of pon farr, the Vulcan mating ritual; first use of the sentence "Live long and prosper"; and first use of the Vulcan hand symbol. Sturgeon is also sometimes credited as having deliberately put homosexual subtext in his work, like the back-rub scene in "Shore Leave", and the short story "The World Well Lost". Sturgeon also wrote several episodes of Star Trek that were never produced. One of these was notable for having first introduced the Prime Directive. He also wrote an episode of the Saturday morning show Land of the Lost, "The Pylon Express", in 1975. Two of Sturgeon's stories were adapted for The New Twilight Zone. One, "A Saucer of Loneliness", was broadcast in 1986 and was dedicated to his memory. Another short story, "Yesterday was Monday", was the inspiration for The New Twilight Zone episode "A Matter of Minutes". His 1944 novella "Killdozer!" was the inspiration for the 1970s made-for-TV movie, Marvel comic book, and alternative rock band of the same name.
Sturgeon is well known among readers of classic science-fiction anthologies. At the height of his popularity in the 1950s he was the most anthologized English-language author alive. Describing "To Here and the Easel" as "a stunning portrait of personality disassociation as perceived from the inside", Carl Sagan said that many of Sturgeon's works were among the "rare few science‐fiction novels [that] combine a standard science‐fiction theme with a deep human sensitivity". John Clute wrote in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: "His influence upon writers like Harlan Ellison and Samuel R. Delany was seminal, and in his life and work he was a powerful and generally liberating influence in post-WWII US sf". He is not much known by the general public, however, and he won comparatively few awards. (One was the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement from the 1985 World Fantasy Convention.) His best work was published before the establishment and consolidation of the leading genre awards, while his later production was scarcer and weaker. He was listed as a primary influence on the much more famous Ray Bradbury.
Sturgeon's original novels were all published between 1950 and 1961, and the bulk of his short story work dated from the 1940s and 1950s. Though he continued to write through 1983, his work rate dipped noticeably in the later years of his life; a 1971 story collection entitled Sturgeon Is Alive And Well addressed Sturgeon's seeming withdrawal from the public eye in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Sturgeon lived for several years in Springfield, Oregon. He died on May 8, 1985, of lung fibrosis, at Sacred Heart General Hospital in the neighboring city of Eugene.
He was a member of the all-male literary banqueting club the Trap Door Spiders, which served as the basis of Isaac Asimov's fictional group of mystery solvers the Black Widowers. Sturgeon was the inspiration for the recurrent character of Kilgore Trout in the novels of Kurt Vonnegut.