Robert Sterling was born at Benwell, Northumberland in 1859, the second of two sons to Robert, a joiner and his wife Elizabeth. The family would remain in the Newcastle area, living in Elswick by 1871, and then South Gosforth by 1891. In 1881 Robert Sterling matriculated at Durham University to study Theology, joining University College. Winning prizes in both Theology and Hebrew, he was awarded his degree of Licentiate of Theology in 1883. He was ordained in Newcastle on Christmas Eve 1884, and was then appointed Curate first at Choppington (1884-1887), then Kyloe (1888-1890) and then Gosforth (1890-1892). In the meantime Sterling returned to Durham University and gained a Bachelor of Arts degree, awarded in absentia on 13 December 1887. The following year he changed track, and was admitted to the College of Medicine, graduating with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery in 1892. He had won further prizes: second prize and an honour certificate in Surgery for the winter session 1891-1892.
Sterling’s time in Choppington coincided with a period of rising unemployment, the coal mines there proving increasingly uncompetitive. “Distress at Choppington” became a regular feature in the local press, and Sterling’s name frequently appears as a leader in attempts to raise money for the miners’ relief. (Economic distress at Choppington was again reported in 1914, and impelled a large number of its young men to opt for more secure wages in the armed services.) He was remembered again in a 1907 article in the Morpeth Herald, which recounted a daring rescue Sterling made of a man who fell through the ice into the River Wansbeck: Sterling dived through the hole and successfully found the unfortunate skater and, against the current, was able to regain the ice hole with the man. The article concludes, “[t]his daring affair did not get into the newspapers at the time, owing chiefly to the modesty of the brave rescuer”. Sterling was also married in these years, to Emily Sarah Webster. Together they had six children, Annie Elizabeth, Robert Gee, Charles Selwyn, George Pomeroy, Mary Isabel and Philip Sydney, of whom more later.
In the spring of 1893 Sterling joined the Church Missionary Society and was sent as a medical missionary to Gaza, where he and Emily would make their home for the next twenty years. On his way, Sterling stopped in Constantinople in order to gain a qualification allowing him to practice medicine in the Turkish Empire. In 1882 the C.M.S. had opened a dispensary at Gaza. In 1907 the Society built a hospital with In and Out patient departments, and a dispensary was also constructed at El Arīsh in Egypt. Sterling also established a school in the mission compound where 300-400 girls were taught each day. In 1906 he was made Honorary Canon of St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, a mark of the respect in which he was held. In this long period of his professional life, Sterling was also active in Jordan and in the Sinai and Egypt. During this time he immersed himself in the Arabic language, becoming so fluent that he preached in both languages. He would go on to publish two works of reference, A Grammar of the Arabic Language in 1904 and its companion, Arabic and English Idioms in 1912. Letters (1893-1911) written by Sterling to the C.M.S. were published in Extracts from the Annual Letters of the Missionaries, a copy of which is available in microfilm at Durham University Library.
In this period Gaza was within the Ottoman Empire, and, upon war breaking out, Turkey having allied itself with the Central Powers, Sterling found himself arrested and imprisoned for several days. A short obituary, printed in the University Journal, states that he was not ill-treated, however, and his wife was able to take him food until his release was secured by the American Consul. But this was the beginning of the end of Sterling’s time in Gaza as a missionary. He left Palestine on Boxing Day 1914, and would return as an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.).
Although old enough to be excused military service at the outbreak of war, Sterling recognised that his medical experience would be of use to the military. Upon the formation of the Army of Palestine, Sterling was transferred from the Border Regiment to the Intelligence Department in Palestine at his own request, knowing that his knowledge of the area and its people would also be of considerable value. It was therefore with some melancholy that he was able to observe his own Gaza home, and his many friends there, from the British lines outside the city. This must have been a time of immense sadness to Robert. The city would not be captured by the allies until after his death in November 1917, and the C.M.S. hospital required re-building after the war: now the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, it still serves thousands of Gazans every month.
Invalided to Egypt in June and to England in August, Robert died on 16 October 1917 at St Thomas’ Nursing Home in Westminster of an illness he had contracted in Palestine. He clearly left a significant mark on all those who knew him as a clergyman and doctor, and notices of his death featured in a number of newspapers. His funeral took place at St Nicholas Church in Gosforth and he is buried in the churchyard there and also commemorated on the 1914-1918 Newcastle-upon-Tyne Medical School war memorial plaque.
A brief word on Robert Sterling’s descendants. The Sterling’s children rarely lived with their parents in Gaza: though the three youngest were born in Palestine, they were all schooled in England. Beside Robert’s name in the university’s Roll of Service are those of two of his sons. Corporal Charles S. Sterling (B.Sc., Armstrong) was a member of the University Officers’ Training Corps, and fought with the South African Expeditionary Force in France. Captain George P. Sterling (Armstrong) D.S.O., M.C., also a member of the O.T.C., joined the Northumberland Fusiliers in November 1914 and fought in Italy. He won the Military Cross in September 1917, but was killed in action on 27 October 1918. His eldest son, Captain Robert G. Sterling also served with the R.A.M.C. in Egypt. His military records show that in 1922 he was working at his father’s hospital in Gaza, to where he would return in 1923 as a “medical missionary”. The Sterlings’ youngest son Philip was too young to take any part in the war: he subsequently emigrated to Canada. In common with a large number of women of their generation both of the Sterling daughters, Annie Elizabeth and Mary Isabel, appear to have remained unmarried. Annie Elizabeth was a governess in Sheffield in 1911, and her sister went out to India in the 1920s to teach as a missionary.