Suess studied chemistry and physics at the University of Vienna where he received a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1935. He conducted postgraduate research at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Zurich and the First Chemical University Laboratory in Vienna. In 1938, Suess accepted a position at the University of Hamburg. As assistant professor at the Institute for Physical Chemistry in Hamburg, Suess conducted experiments involving the technical production of deuterium. During World War II, he belonged to the group of German scientists assigned to explore the possibilities for utilizing atomic energy. Suess also served as scientific advisor to the heavy water plant in Vemork, Norway, which was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943. During the war years, Suess became interested in theories of the origins of the elements, and in 1948 and 1949 he worked with Hans Jensen on the nuclear shell model. Suess was co-author with Jensen on a seminal paper on the nuclear shell model. Jensen was later awarded a Nobel Prize for his participation in the development of this model.
In 1949 Suess received an invitation from Professor Harrison Brown to visit the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago as a research fellow. Suess immigrated to the U.S. in 1950 and spent 18 months in Chicago conducting research in Harold Urey's laboratory. Suess worked as a physical chemist for the U.S. Geological Survey from 1951 to 1955. In 1955, Suess accepted an offer from Roger Revelle to join the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In 1956, Suess established the La Jolla Radiocarbon Laboratory. The findings of this laboratory, which utilized innovative carbon-14 measurements, included important contributions to many fields of modern science.
Suess was one of the first four professors appointed to the faculty of the University of California, San Diego, upon its inception. He served as professor of Geochemistry from 1958 to 1977. His courses included cosmochemistry and radiochemistry. Suess' research has focused on the distribution of carbon-14 and tritium in the oceans, the abundances of the elements, and other problems of cosmochemistry. In 1977, Suess was named Professor Emeritus by the University of California. While at UCSD, Suess also acted as consultant to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
Among his accomplishments as an experimental scientist, Suess was responsible for developing and improving radiocarbon dating. In addition, he has contributed to solving problems concerning the origin and synthesis of the elements and the evolution of the solar system. One of Suess' major contributions is work that led to the development of the shell model of the atomic nucleus.
Suess was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965, the V.M. Goldschmidt Medal in 1974, and the Leonard Medal of the International Meteoritical Society in 1977. He has served many guest professorships at European universities and is a member of several scientific academies, including the National Academy of Science. His bibliography is extensive and notable for its documentation of the development of the carbon-14 dating process.