Vasmer was born of German parents in St. Petersburg and graduated from the St. Petersburg University in 1907. Since 1910, he delivered lectures there as a professor. During the Russian Civil War, he worked in the Universities of Saratov and Yuryev (Tartu). In 1921 he settled in Leipzig but later moved to Berlin. In 1937-38, he delivered lectures at Columbia University in New York City. It was there that he started to work on his magnum opus, the Etymological dictionary of the Russian language. In 1944, his house in Berlin was bombed, and most of his materials perished. Nevertheless, Vasmer persevered in his work, which was finally published in four volumes by Heidelberg University in 1950–58 as . Vasmer died in West Berlin on November 30, 1962.
The Russian translation of Vasmer's dictionary with extensive commentaries by Oleg N. Trubachev was printed in 1964-73. It is the most authoritative source for Slavic-languages etymology to this day. The Russian version is available on Sergei Starostin's Tower of Babel web site.
Another monumental work lead by Max Vasmer was the compilation of a multi-volume dictionary of Russian names of rivers and other bodies of water. He was the initiator of an even more major project, completed by a team of workers after his death: the creation of a monumental (11 volumes) gazetteer that included virtually all names of populated places in Russia found both in pre-revolutionary and Soviet sources.