Stearne (Sterne), John (1624–69), founder of the (Royal) College of Physicians of Ireland, was born 26 November 1624 at Ardbraccan, Co. Meath, the eldest of three sons of John Stearne, of Stapleford, Cambridgeshire, who came to Ireland as ‘officer’ to Theophilus Buckworth (qv), bishop of Dromore. Buckworth was married to one of the daughters of Archbishop James Ussher (qv) and Stearne, who settled at Greenan, Co. Down, married Mabel Bermingham, of Ballogh Co. Dublin, daughter of Robert Bermingham and his wife, Margaret Ussher, sister of the archbishop.
John Stearne the younger was educated by Mr Burne at Greenan, and entered TCD in 1639, becoming a scholar in 1641. But he left the college, apparently without taking a degree, because of the troubled state of Ireland, and made his way to Cambridge. Archbishop Ussher's letter of June 1642 recommending the young man to Dr Samuel Ward, master of Sidney College, Cambridge, describes his father as ‘chancellor’ to Buckworth (though Stearne senior does not appear as such in the diocesan succession lists). Stearne matriculated at Cambridge in July 1642, graduating BA, 1642, and MA, 1646. He probably studied medicine at Cambridge before the English civil war forced him to move to Oxford, where he was befriended by Seth Ward, fellow of Wadham College.
Stearne had returned to Ireland by October 1651, when he was admitted, by order of council, to TCD as a fellow, initially for a probationary period of six months during which he was ‘to produce testimonials of his former carriage and good affection for the parliament from godly and honest persons in England’. In 1654 Trinity College was considering the future of a hall of student residence in Dame Street, granted to the college by the corporation of Dublin in 1615. The building had fallen into disuse and was in danger of being reclaimed by the city. The college, which could not afford to repair the hall, thought of letting it to private parties, but Stearne objected that this would only encourage the city to resume possession of the property. His alternative proposal – that he should be life president of the hall, in which he would have lodgings and which he would convert ‘unto the sole and proper use of physicians’ – was accepted. He proceeded to refurbish the hall from his own purse and with donations he procured. In 1655 he was granted permission by TCD to stay overnight outside the college whenever he should judge it necessary for his practice of physic. In 1656 he was appointed professor of Hebrew in the college, though a dispute ensued over his salary, the college refusing to pay the full sum despite a letter supporting Stearne from Henry Cromwell (qv).
Stearne resigned his fellowship in November 1659. While the reason is not certainly known, it has been suggested that his marriage about this time (which strictly speaking disqualified him as a fellow) or dissatisfaction arising from his salary dispute prompted the resignation. It is more likely however that Stearne, an ambitious young man anticipating the restoration of Charles II, judged it politic to distance himself from the Cromwellian regime. In June 1660 Stearne's was the second of seventy-four signatures on the ‘humble address’ of the students of the college, submitted to the duke of Ormond (qv), now restored as chancellor. The address denounced as illegal the interregnum college establishment, of which Stearne had been a pillar (notwithstanding some evidence that he intrigued against the Cromwellian provost, Samuel Winter (qv)). The college in 1662 approved Stearne's revived proposals (including a commitment to seek a royal charter) for a ‘fraternity of physicians’ in Trinity Hall, and also appointed him professor of medicine for life. Charles II granted a charter establishing the College of Physicians of Ireland in August 1667; once again Stearne was named president for the remainder of his life. He died 18 November 1669 in Dublin, and was buried in the chapel of Trinity College.
Stearne had married, in 1659, Dorothy, daughter of Charles Ryves, who was examiner in the chancery of Ireland. Stearne's widow appears to have continued as a tenant in the College of Physicians until her death in 1700. The couple had three daughters and a son, John Stearne (qv), who became bishop of Clogher. Laurence Sterne (qv), the novelist, was a relative, and one of Stearne's uncles, Captain Robert Stearne (d. 1658?), served in the regiment of foot commanded by Lord Deputy Fleetwood (qv), and settled at Tullynally, Co. Westmeath. Captain Stearne's eldest son, Brigadier-general Robert Stearne (d. 1732), commanded an independent company in Ireland from 1678. He served in a series of Irish regiments and was closely associated with several prominent Irish officers, including Frederick Hamilton (qv), Robert Parker (qv), and Richard Ingoldsby (qv). He succeeded Ingoldsby as colonel of the royal Irish regiment of foot in 1712, and became a governor of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in 1728.
John Stearne published five works in his lifetime, another being edited posthumously by one of his former students Henry Dodwell (qv). All the works are in Latin, and theology features more prominently than medicine. In them he styles himself ‘M.&J.U.D.’, that is, doctor of medicine and law, but it is not known for certain when or where he took these degrees. A portrait of Stearne in his presidential robes is in the provost's house in Trinity College, and a copy is in the RCPI; it is reproduced in A portrait of Irish medicine.