Daniel Drake was born on October 20, 1785, in New Jersey. His family was very poor and moved to Kentucky in 1788, hoping to improve its lot on the frontier. Drake received limited schooling, but he had learned to read by the age of seven. In 1798, Drake became a student of Dr. William Goforth, one of the first phsicians in Cincinnati, Ohio. By 1804, Drake was a partner in Goforth's practice, and in 1805, Goforth granted Drake a formal diploma to practice medicine on his own. This was the first medical diploma granted west of the Appalachian Mountains. Drake spent the next two years in Philadelphia, continuing his studies. He then opened a medical practice in Kentucky before returning to Cincinnati in 1807.
Drake lived in Cincinnati until 1816, when he became a professor of medicine at Transylvania University, the first medical school west of the Appalachian Mountains, located in Lexington, Kentucky. Drake remained at the school for only one academic term, before returning to Cincinnati. Upon his return to Ohio, Drake played a major role in establishing the Medical College of Ohio, founded in 1819. He also helped create the Commercial Hospital and Lunatic Asylum for the State of Ohio in 1820. Drake served as president of the Medical College until 1823. The Medical College's faculty developed a strong dislike for Drake and voted to remove him as president in 1822, but the faculty members reversed their decision due to public uproar. Unwanted at the Medical College, Drake accepted a position at Transylvania University.
Drake returned to Cincinnati in 1826, opening the Cincinnati Eye Infirmary in 1827. Over the next several years, he tried to form his own medical school in Cincinnati, hoping to drive the Medical College out of business. In 1835, he succeeded in establishing a medical program at Cincinnati College, but it collapsed in 1839. During the 1840s, Drake served as a professor of medicine at the Louisville Medical College in Kentucky. In 1849, he accepted a professorship at the Medical College of Ohio, only to resign that same year. In 1852, he rejoined the faculty at the Medical College of Ohio but died a few days after receiving his appointment.
Drake contributed greatly to Ohio's development. His work helped provide Ohioans with capable doctors. He played a leading role in establishing several institutions of higher education. Drake also authored numerous books on Ohio's animals, plants, and diseases.