Abstract In this work, a synthetic meso-tera (4-sulfophenyl) porphyrin (TPPS4) was used as a probe to determine daunorubicin (DNR) by fluorescence quenching and spectrophotometric methods. At pH 4.6 potassium acid phthalate–NaOH buffer solution, a 1:1 complex of DNR interacted with TPPS4 formed via the electrostatic attractions and hydrophobic interactions, thus resulted in TPPS4 fluorescence quenching and absorption spectra change. The maximum excitation wavelength (λex) and the maximum emission wavelength (λem) are 435nm and 672nm, respectively. The fluorescence quenching values (ΔF) are the good linear relationship to the concentration of DNR in the range of 0.8–6.0mgL−1. The method exhibits high sensitivity with the detection limit (3σ) being 27.0ngmL−1. Meanwhile, a decrease of absorbance is detected at 433nm with the appearance of a new absorption peak at 420nm. The optimum reaction conditions, influencing factors and the effect of coexisting substances have been investigated in our experiment. The results showed that the method had a good selectivity and could be applied to determine DNR in serum and urine samples. In addition, the combine ratio between DNR and TPPS4 was measured and the charge distribution before and after reaction was calculated by quantum chemistry calculation AM1 method. The type of fluorescence quenching was discussed by the absorption spectra change, Stern–Volmer plots and fluorescence lifetime determination.