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The Curious Biography of Sarphati

Amsterdam’s beautiful, 17th-century canals bring so much joy to those who visit. However, in the 19th century areas along the canals have featured many lower-class neighborhoods. These areas were ravaged by pollution and disease. One day, a man set out to change this and succeeded: his name was Samuel Sarphati.

How Did Sarphati Change the Health of Amsterdam?

Sarphati was an idealistic doctor and businessman of Jewish descent. He was one of the most influential Amsterdammers of the 19th century.

Sarphati worked as a doctor for the poor people of Jordaan. He soon realized that public hygiene was the cause for many epidemics. Cholera and other diseases were very common in this neighborhood. He did see a relation between the catastrophic poverty of working-class areas and their lack of sanitation. Sarphati started to work to change this.

He was convinced that if he improved living conditions, he could also better the health of Amsterdam’s poorer citizens. Back then, Amsterdam did have already beautiful canal belts. But the belts were heavily polluted. Streets were full of excrement, domestic and street refuse, and other types of waste. Amsterdammers used the canals to get rid of their waste.

Sarphati addressed this matter to the city council. He arranged to get the permit for the first waste- and manure-processing company. This company would collect street refuse and process it into agricultural compost.

As Amsterdam started becoming cleaner, the health and lives of the poor residents of Amsterdam improved with it.

Eat healthy bread

Sarphati’s compassion didn’t stop as he rose on the social ladder. He founded, in 1855, the first flour and bread factory.`This factory sold bread 30% cheaper than the average city baker. That meant that the poor of Amsterdam could eat good bread. It was further benefiting their health. By 1870, efforts like these had increased average life expectancy in Amsterdam significantly.

Samuel Sarphati also played an important role as a project developer in city planning. In addition to public health, he undertook initiatives in improving education and industrialisation.

After returning from a world exhibition in London in 1851, Sarphati was amazed at their progress. He also noticed how far the Dutch were lagging behind. This prompted him to construct impressive buildings. Think about the Amstel Hotel and the Paleis voor Volksvlijt (Palace for Folk Industry). These places were built in order to improve Amsterdam’s dignity.

The Palace for Folk Industry became Sarphati’s new symbol for the city. It marked the beginning of a new era. But the doctor is mostly reminded of his work in the improvement of health and his social involvement in the poor community.

The fascinating biography of Sarphati and his importance in the Jewish history of Amsterdam can be further explored by joining our Anne Frank & Jewish History Tour.

Legacy and Impact on Amsterdam

The city of Amsterdam still bears a few artefacts that remind us of the contribution of this great doctor. The Sarphatipark, the Sarphati Street, the Sarphati Monument, and the beautiful Amstel Hotel.


Between 1881 and 1886, municipal engineer J.G. van Niftrik created, in his memory, the Sarphati Park. The English landscape styled park is a green oasis and is visited often by residents of De Pijp. The park is also home to a memorial to Sarphati. I sometimes walk into the Sarphatipark after getting my favorite ice cream from Massimo’s. As I pass his statue, I am always reminded that he shaped Amsterdam in what it is today.

The scenic landscape of the park and its stream that flows in a valley beckons are impressive. So locals take a lazy afternoon stroll or to bask in the sun on the grass. The pumping station on the edge of the pond provides a picturesque backdrop to those that are watching the ducks glide calmly on the water.

Even though only a park and two streets bear the name of Sarphati. His legacy is embedded in all of Amsterdam.

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