Head smut is a systemic disease in maize caused by the soil-borne fungus Sporisorium reilianum that poses a grave threat to maize production worldwide. A major head smut quantitative resistance locus, qHSR1, has been detected on maize chromosome bin2.09. Here we report the map-based cloning of qHSR1 and the molecular mechanism of qHSR1-mediated resistance. Sequential fine mapping and transgenic complementation demonstrated that ZmWAK is the gene within qHSR1 conferring quantitative resistance to maize head smut. ZmWAK spans the plasma membrane, potentially serving as a receptor-like kinase to perceive and transduce extracellular signals. ZmWAK was highly expressed in the mesocotyl of seedlings where it arrested biotrophic growth of the endophytic S. reilianum. Impaired expression in the mesocotyl compromised ZmWAK-mediated resistance. Deletion of the ZmWAK locus appears to have occurred after domestication and spread among maize germplasm, and the ZmWAK kinase domain underwent functional constraints during maize evolution.