Maarten Schmidt gained his PhD under the famous late Dutch radio astronomy pioneer Jan H. Oort. He emigrated to the U.S. and joined the California Institute of Technology in 1959. Initially, he continued earlier work on the mass distribution and dynamics of the galaxy before taking over a project taking the spectra of objects found to be radio wave emitters.
Schmidt has worked on quasars ever since demonstrating in 1963 that the peculiarities of the visible light spectrum of particularly bright quasar 3C273 were caused by a massive red shift. Since then, he has studied the evolution and distribution of quasars, discovering that they were more abundant in the early universe. This finding contributed to the decline of the steady state theory, which previously competed with the Big Bang theory as a model for the origins of the universe.
He was head of astronomy at Caltech from 1972-75, the physics, mathematics, and astronomy division for the following three years, and then served as the last director of the Hale Observatories from 1978-80. In later years, Schmidt joined teams discovering x-ray and gamma ray sources from orbiting observatories such as the Roentgen satellite (ROSAT) and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and obtained their optical spectra at the Keck Observatory. He received the Bruce Medal, awarded by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific for outstanding lifetime contributions to astronomy in 1992. Despite retiring as a professor at Caltech 12 years ago, he has continued his research, working to find the red shift beyond which there are no quasars.