Thomas Messinger Drown was born in Philadelphia to parents who were natives of New England. He was the youngest of three boys and attended public schools in his city of birth until his graduation from Philadelphia Central High School in 1859. Drown studied medicine at University of Pennsylvania (graduated in 1862)and completed post-graduate work at Yale and Harvard, as well as Freiburg, Saxony, Mining School and University of Heidelberg from 1885-1868. He also returned to Philadelphia to do work in a private chemical lab.
Drown's first teaching position came to him as an Instructor of Metallurgy while he was at Harvard from 1869-1870. In 1874, Drown accepted a position as Professor of Analytical Chemistry at Lafayette college. He remained with the school until 1881 when he decided to go into private practice for a few years. During this time period, he was also secretary and editor of Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, a mining journal. In 1885 he began his work at MIT as a professor in analytical chemistry. During eight of his ten years at MIT, Drown was also a chemist for the Massachusetts State Board of Health. He helped to develop and became a professor of the chemical engineering department. In 1895, Drown became the President of Lehigh University.
Drown's first years were difficult, as the Panic of 1893 decimated Lehigh's stock holdings in the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Nevertheless, Lehigh managed to grow in enrollment, academics and in physical plant. Williams Hall was completed. The curriculum leading to a degree in arts and engineering was established, as was the department of zoology and biology. New curricula were adopted in metallurgical engineering, geology, and physics.
Drown was a member of a number of professional societies including, American Philosophical Society, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston, the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, the Northeast Water Works Association, the American Chemical Society, the Iron and Steel Institute and the Society for Chemical Industry in England, the Berzelius Society, was an honorary member and at one point, president of the American Institute of Mining Engineers.
When Drown died in office in 1904, Professor William H. Chandler became acting president.