Daniel Coit Gilman was born July 6, 1831 in Norwich, Connecticut. He was the fifth of nine children of William Gilman, a wealthy mill owner. Daniel attended Yale from 1848 to 1852, and after his graduation attended Harvard University briefly before making a trip in 1854 to Europe, where he eventually served as attaché to the United States Legation in St. Petersburg. After his return to America in 1855, Gilman worked as a fund-raiser for the Sheffield Scientific School (affiliated with Yale) and also as assistant librarian at Yale. In 1858 he was promoted to the position of head librarian, a post which he resigned in 1865. In the meantime, he had become school visitor for New Haven. In that job, and in his subsequent post on the State Board of Education, he developed a reputation as an educational reformer.
In 1872 Gilman became the president of the University of California. When the trustees of the newly-endowed Johns Hopkins University wrote to presidents Eliot of Harvard, Angell of Michigan and White of Cornell in 1874 to ask for suggestions for the presidency of the new university, all three independently recommended Gilman. The post was formally offered in early 1875; Gilman accepted, and soon achieved prominence as an educator and administrator. He is credited with having created the first full graduate program in America, and until his retirement in 1901 Gilman consistently stressed research and scholarship. After his retirement from Hopkins, he was for two years president of the new Carnegie Institution of Washington. He died in 1908, survived by his second wife Elisabeth Dwight Woolsey Gilman and by two daughters Alice Gilman Wheeler and Elisabeth Gilman, the latter of whom was a leader of the Socialist Party in Maryland in the 1930s.
Among Gilman's publications are James Monroe (1883), University Problems (1898), and The Launching of a University (1906). There are two published biographies of Gilman; one by Fabian Franklin published in 1910 and one by Abraham Flexner in 1946.