Schilt was born in 1894 in the Netherlands, and educated there under Jacobus Kapteyn. He emigrated to the United States in 1933 as the Chair of Columbia University's astronomy department, a position which he filled until his retirement in 1962, when he was granted the title of Rutherford Professor of Astronomy Emeritus.
Schilt's astronomical work included the invention of the Schilt photometer, a device which measures the light output of stars, and, indirectly, their distances. He worked on the motions of star streams in the Milky Way Galaxy, and was director of the Yale-Columbia Southern Station in Johannesburg and Canberra, as well as Director of the Rutherford Observatory at Columbia.
Schilt was noted at Columbia for walking into his classes the first day after the launch of Sputnik 1 and commenting "Well, gentlemen, it is not every day we have something new in the sky to talk about", following which he devoted the entire class to proving that Sputnik had been deliberately launched into an orbit designed to make it invisible from the United States for as long as possible (six weeks).
- Barney, Ida; Schilt, Jan (1927). "Discussion of the proper motions in the equatorial Zone". Astronomical Journal 37. doi:10.1086/104785.
- Barney, Ida; Schilt, Jan (1930). "Analysis of the Yale proper motions in the zones between +50 degrees and +55 degrees and between +55 degrees and +60". Astronomical Journal 40. doi:10.1086/105000.
- van de Kamp, Peter (June 1982). "Obituary: Jan Schilt". Physics Today 35 (6): 67–68. doi:10.1063/1.2915144.
- "Papers of Jan Schilt, 1931-1963". Archival Collections. Columbia University Library. Retrieved September 27, 2013.
- Hockey, Thomas (2009), Schlit 2308, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (Springer Publishing), ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0, retrieved November 19, 2012 (subscription required)
- New York Times obituary, January 11, 1982
- Columbia University Library Bulletin