He was born at Ludwigslust in Mecklenburg-Schwerin. In 1807 he was appointed to the professorship of Greek literature at the Weimar gymnasium by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose acquaintance he had made during a holiday tour. In 1815 he became professor of ancient literature at the University of Breslau, where he continued to live until his death. His endorsement of gymnastic exercises, in which he himself took part, caused a quarrel known as the "Breslauer Turnfehde."
Passow's great work was his Handworterbuch der griechischen Sprache (1819–1824) ("Dictionary of the Greek Language"), originally a revision of Johann Gottlob Schneider's lexicon, which appeared in the fourth edition (1831) as an independent work, without Schneider's name. It formed the basis of Liddell and Scott's lexicon. Other works by Passow are Grundzuge der griech. und röm. Literatur und Kunstgeschichte (2nd ed., 1829) ("Foundations of Greek and Roman Literature and History of Art") and editions of Persius, Longus, Tacitus's Germania, Dionysius Periegetes, and Musaeus. His miscellaneous writings were collected in Opuscula academica (1835) and Vermischte Schriften (1843).
See Franz Passow's Leben und Briefe (1839) ("Life and Letters"), by L and A Wachler.