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Saturday, 16 February 2013


My Masterman cousins, second cousins twice removed, were all remarkable achievers. There were seven Masterman children in that generation, six boys and a girl, all of them gifted either academically or in sport, or both. The eldest was Ernest, who had perhaps the finest mind of all of them.

The six Masterman brothers, photographed by Thomas Stearn in 1899
Back L-R: Harry, Charles and Walter
Front L-R: John, Arthur and Ernest

He was a born scientist, a compulsive enquirer and recorder. After training in medicine he took up a post in 1892 at the Anglican Hospital in Jerusalem. This was a missionary hospital, founded in 1840 by the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews when British imperial missionary zeal was at its height.

Ernest in time became its director, and fell under the spell of Palestine to the extent that he lived almost the whole of the rest of his life there. Amongst his contributions to medicine was important research into malaria. He died in Jerusalem on 29th March 1943 and is buried in the protestant cemetery on Mount Zion,where his first wife also lies.

A community of ex-patriot Englishmen and their families grew up around the hospital, and Ernest involved himself in its activities with enthusiasm. As early as 1849 the British consul and his wife had formed the Jerusalem Literary and Scientific Society to serve the intellectual needs of the Bits abroad. This was the perfect circle for Ernest and he was an active member. When the society folded he hosted and chaired its final meeting on 10th November 1913.

The July 1910 Quarterly Statement of the Palestine Exploration Fund

In 1865 members of the Literary and Scientific Society donated capital to the tune of £300 to set up the Palestine Exploration Fund “for the purpose of investigating the archaeology, geography, manners, custom and culture, geology and natural history of the Holy Land.” This ridiculously broad scientific remit gave Ernest’s rigorous curiosity full scope and he wrote dozens of academic papers about the region. It is no surprise that he became secretary of the P.E.F. His eye-witness account of the capture by British forces of Jerusalem in 1917, then held by Ottoman and German troops, is an intelligent commentary, full of understanding of local history, custom and culture.

The archaeological activities of the P.E.F. seem particularly to have caught Ernest’s imagination, and soon after his arrival in Jerusalem he became close friends with the Irishman Robert Macallister, a pioneer of Palestinian archaeology, best known for his excavations at Gezer in Canaan (which made it the oldest positively identified biblical city). In 1900 Macallister in turn drew Masterman’s attention to a geological phenomenon, the changing levels of the Dead Sea.

The Masterman Rock at Ein Fescha by the Dead Sea

A compulsive scientist, Ernest immediately set about observing and recording the change. Starting in 1900 and then twice a year for the next thirteen years he carved a line on a rock at the water’s edge. Thus he literally made his mark on Palestine; and today you can see very clearly what he was observing and recording. Some twenty or thirty feet above the modern road along the shore of the Dead Sea you can still see Ernest’s first level of 1900, a horizontal line in the stone and the initials PEF.

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