A back injury sustained by world number one Rafael Nadal dominated the match but nothing could take the shine off Wawrinka's first grand slam title.
Long overshadowed by compatriot Roger Federer, who was one of the first people to call with congratulations, he will move to number three in the world rankings on Monday and become Swiss number one for the first time.
It will take some adjusting to for Wawrinka, whose arm displays the words of Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.''
After the 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-3 victory, Wawrinka said: "Before today, I always said that except Roger, Rafa, Novak (Djokovic), you always lose, every week. It's tough to take a positive from failing at a tournament.
"That's how I see, in general, my career. I always go back to the court, I always go back to practise to try to improve myself and to give me the best chance to beat the best players in the world.
"I will need time to realise what I did in these two weeks. Because at the end, even if Rafa was injured, I think I deserved that grand slam because I won against Djokovic, I won against Rafa.
"I did an amazing two weeks and I was playing my best tennis ever."
Wawrinka went into the match as a huge underdog having never taken a set off world number one Nadal in 12 previous meetings.
But he began with all the confidence of a man in the form of his life.
In the quarter-finals he defeated defending champion Djokovic, who had left him sobbing after a heartbreaking five-set loss a year ago.
That was the match that finally persuaded Wawrinka he did belong with the world's best, and he showed it in a blistering first set against Nadal.
He was a break up in the second when the Spaniard winced, held his back and headed off court for a medical time-out.
On the resumption, Nadal could barely move or serve, and Wawrinka quickly won the second set.
But, having played so well, the Swiss was struggling with the new dynamics of the match, and Nadal's condition improved enough for him to take an unlikely third set.
The pressure now was firmly on Wawrinka, but he finally got the better of three successive breaks of serve in the fourth set before clinching the victory of his life.
"It's quite crazy what's happening right now, " he said.
"I never expected to win a grand slam. I never dreamed about it because, for me, I was not good enough to beat these guys.
"I was surprised how well I started the match. In the beginning, he was fit. I was playing amazing tennis
"I had to stay calm and just try to stay aggressive. It was not easy. I started to be really nervous because I started to realise that I could win a grand slam.
"I was really sad for him. I really hope that it's not too bad because he was already injured last year and he came back the best player in the world. He's someone that we need in tennis."
Nadal had talked on Friday after beating Federer about how happy he was to be able to compete for the title again at a tournament that has been troublesome for him.
In 2010 and 2011 he was severely hampered by injuries while last year he missed the event altogether because of knee problems.
Reluctantly explaining his latest issue, an emotional Nadal said: "Since the warm-up, I felt it a little bit. At the end of the first set, I started to feel worse.
"Then at the beginning of the second was the key moment that I felt, during a serve, a bad movement, it was very stiff, very bad.
"But this is not the moment to talk about that. It's the moment to congratulate Stan. He really deserves to win the title. I'm very happy for him."
After the second set Nadal seemed to consider calling it a day, but he said: "The last thing that I wanted to do was retire. I hate to do that, especially in a final.
"I tried hard until the end, trying to finish the match as good as I could for the crowd, for the opponent, for me.
"I'm obviously disappointed and very sad about what happened. But that's life, that's sport. I really had a lot of great moments in my career. This is a tough one.
"I'll just accept it and try to keep working hard for what's coming."
When Nadal returned from his time-out he was jeered by the crowd, although it did not take them long to get behind him again when they realised the extent to which he was fighting through the pain barrier.
He said: "They paid for their ticket to watch the best match possible, and I was not able to offer that to them.
"I can understand very well the reaction. They understood later that I was bad. You never will hear me talk badly about the crowd here."
Nadal had been bidding to become the first man in the Open era to win each grand slam title at least twice, as well as equal the 14 titles of Pete Sampras, who presented the trophies.
That will have to wait, for, as Nadal said: "It's Stan's day, not my day."
Wawrinka may not have been able to quite believe his achievement, but he was happy to celebrate it.
"There's a big chance I'll get drunk tonight," he added with a grin.
Pete Sampras had been expecting to mark Nadal's equalling of his 14 grand slam titles but instead the American presented the trophy to a disbelieving Wawrinka.
The Swiss is the first man to beat Novak Djokovic and Nadal at the same grand slam, and turning to the Spaniard he said: "I'm really sorry for you and I hope your back is going to be fine.
"You're a really great guy, a good friend and an amazing champion. It's always a pleasure to play with you.
"Last year I lost a crazy match and I was crying a lot. I still don't know if I'm dreaming but we'll see tomorrow morning."
Nadal had hoped to become the first man in the Open era to win every grand slam title at least twice, but that will have to wait.
The 27-year-old said: "Many thanks to Stan, you really deserve it and I'm very happy for you. We have a great relationship. Bad luck was against me today but you really deserve this.
"It's been a very emotional two weeks and I'm sorry to finish this way. I tried very, very hard.
"Last year was a very tough moment when I didn't have the chance to be playing here. Playing this year has been one of the most emotional tournaments in my career."
Although Nadal's injury inevitably overshadowed the match, there was certainly no guarantee he would have fared any better fully fit.
Wawrinka thrived as the underdog and adopted an ultra aggressive approach, which brought dividends with a break in the third game.
The occasion seemed to get to him for the first time when he served for the first set and Nadal brought up three break points.
But the world number one failed to make a return off three second serves and Wawrinka ended his 26-set losing streak with an ace.
There was no let-up at the start of the second and by the time a run of 12 straight points came to an end, he was already a break ahead.
It was while Nadal was serving to get on the board in the third game that he appeared to suffer the injury.
He winced, held his back and doubled over in pain before leaving the court for a lengthy medical time-out.
Wawrinka was furious that he was not being told what the injury was and entered into a heated debate with referee Wayne McKewen.
When Nadal came back on court he was loudly jeered by the Rod Laver Arena crowd, but the problem was all too apparent.
He was rolling in serves at less than 80mph and moving very stiffly on the baseline, while the emotion was clear to see as he struggled to hold back tears.
It was rough luck for Nadal, who said on Friday after beating Roger Federer how happy he was to be fit - blister aside - and have a chance to challenge again for the Australian Open title.
It has been a troublesome event for the Spaniard, who was hampered by injuries in 2010 and 2011 and missed last year's event because of knee problems.
The crowd were back on Nadal's side as he saved three set points to hold for 2-5, but the Spaniard sat with head in hands at the changeover, sending the trainer away.
It was a mental test for Wawrinka, whose head must have been spinning, but four big serves gave him the set.
Nadal appeared to think about calling it a day at the end of the set but decided to head to his chair, and his decision was validated at the start of the third.
Wawrinka was struggling to deal mentally with the situation, and a combination of that and a slight improvement in Nadal's movement helped him into a 3-0 lead.
The turmoil in Wawrinka's head was apparent when he made two poor mistakes on break points and, somehow, Nadal clinched the set.
Wawrinka was battling himself more than his opponent, and two more break points went begging at the start of the fourth, a set he desperately needed to win.
But the Swiss was handling events much better now, holding his own serve easily, and he finally broke Nadal to lead 4-2.
Incredibly, he was then broken back to love, but Nadal's serve was still his big weakness and Wawrinka struck once more to move to within a game of victory.
This time he held his serve to love, raising his hands in delight and relief, although his muted celebrations reflected the strange circumstances of his maiden grand slam triumph.
Wawrinka becomes only the second man after Juan Martin del Potro to break the big four's stranglehold on slam titles since Marat Safin won the Australian Open in 2005.