As a child, Theodore von Karman studied at the model high school that his father had founded. He showed a keen talent for mathematics, but was steered toward engineering by his father. He studied at the Royal Polytechnic University in Budapest and taught there between 1903 and 1906, then continued to the University of Gottingen, where he completed a doctorate while assisting in research on dirigibles.
In 1912 Theodore von Karman became director of the University of Aachen, a position he retained until 1930. During World War I, he served in the Austria-Hungarian aviation corps. He was active in promoting international scientific cooperation and was appointed honorary president of the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, which was founded in 1946.
Karman traveled widely as a visiting professor to Japan, China, India, Belgium, and England and received many academic honors. He first visited the United States in 1926 and four years later he accepted an invitation to direct the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.
He continued to work for international scientific cooperation, helping to establish the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences in 1956, and the International Academy of Astronautics in 1960. The academy sponsored the First International Symposium on the Basic Environmental Problems of Man in Space, the first international exchange of information on space.
Theodore von Karman was a member of Spanish Academy Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Society Civil Engineers, Franklin Institute, American Ordnance Association, Air Force Association, American Geophysical Society, American Association University professors, Tau Beta Pi, Gamma Alpha Rho, Sigma Xi.
Theodore von Karman had no wife or children.