Max Sterne grew up in Durban and excelled in sports at school, holding championships in boxing, swimming and athletics. He qualified as a veterinarian (BVSc) in the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Pretoria at Onderstepoort in 1928. After two years of managing a cattle ranch in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) he was employed by the Allerton Veterinary Laboratory in Pietermaritzburg to assist in the eradication of east coast fever. In 1934 he transferred to the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute as assistant to E.M. Robinson*, with the task to produce the Pasteur anthrax vaccine. His main contribution to science was the discovery of an apathogenic anthrax bacillus without a capsule which gave 100% protection against infection with the virulent strain. His spore-based vaccine replaced the Pasteur vaccine world-wide and was still used at the end of the 20th century. He also developed a revolutionary new technique for the production of bacterial toxins in dialysis bags. This enabled him to produce the first really successful vaccine against botulism (lamsiekte), thus contributing significantly to the elimination of this important disease as a threat to cattle farming in large areas of the country.
Sterne was awarded the degree Doctor of Veterinary Science (DVSc) by the University of South Africa in 1936 for his thesis Studies in variation in Anthrax. In 1947 he obtained a Diploma in Bacteriology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and in 1951 emigrated to the United Kingdom, where he was responsible for the production of clostridial vaccines by the Wellcome Research Laboratories.