Werner Arber studied chemistry and physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich from 1949 to 1953. Late in 1953 he took an assistantship for electron microscopy at the University of Geneva, in time left the electron microscope, went on to research bacteriophages and write his dissertation on defective lambda prophage mutants. He received his doctorate in 1958 from the University of Geneva.
Arber then worked at the University of Southern California in phage genetics with Joe Bertani starting in the summer of 1958. Late in 1959 he accepted an offer to return to Geneva at the beginning of 1960, but only after spending "several very fruitful weeks" at each of the laboratories of Gunther Stent at University of California, Berkeley, Joshua Lederberg at Stanford University and Salvador Luria at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Back at the University of Geneva, he worked in a laboratory in the basement of the Physics Institute where he carried out productive research and hosted "a number of first class graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and senior scientists." In 1965 he was promoted to extraordinary professor for molecular genetics at the University of Geneva. In 1971 he moved to the University of Basel, after spending a year as a visiting professor in the Department of Molecular Biology of the University of California in Berkeley. In Basel, he was one of the first persons to work in the newly constructed Biozentrum , which housed the departments of biophysics, biochemistry, microbiology, structural biology, cell biology and pharmacology which was conducive to interdisciplinary research.
He is member of the World Knowledge Dialogue Scientific Board.
Arber is married and has two daughters.