This Day in Jewish History / Dr. Samuel Sarphati, Wizard of Amsterdam, Is Born

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Today is the 201st anniversary of the birth of Samuel Sarphati, the industrious Dutch physician, city planner and entrepreneur who was responsible for many of Amsterdam’s advances in public health and welfare in the 19th century.

He was born on January 31, 1813, to Emanuel Sarphati, a tobacco commissioner, and Reyna Musafia, both from Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jewish community, whose members first settled in the city in the 16th century. He grew up in the local Jewish quarter and received a classical Latin education.

Sarphati studied medicine at the University of Leiden, graduating in 1839. The following year he was the only applicant for a position as physician to the Portuguese Jewish community. In 1843 he married Abigail Mendes de Leon, who came from a prominent Jewish family.

The fact that Sarphati only lived to be 53 makes his list of accomplishments all the more remarkable. A tireless innovator, he originated numerous projects and systems, one after another, that made citizens’ lives healthier and more productive. They included the introduction of refuse and excrement removal services, construction of modern bread bakeries that relied on safe sources of water, establishment of a school of trade and commerce and of national savings and mortgage banks, as well as a variety of municipal development projects meant to create low-cost housing and green spaces in Amsterdam.

Sarphati also was behind construction of a Palace of Industry, a grand metal-and-glass structure inspired by London’s Crystal Palace that offered exhibitions on commerce-related themes, and of the city’s Amstel Hotel, which is still in operation today. (The Palace of Industry burned down in 1929.)

Sarphati was no less involved in the affairs of the Jewish community, overseeing the reconstruction of the Jewish cemetery to eliminate frequent flooding (and deter begging in the cemetery, a pet peeve of his); establishment of Jewish kindergartens so children wouldn’t have to be exposed to Christian proselytizing at gentile institutions; and organization of a society of ritual circumcisers. (He himself was also a mohel.)

Land reclamation was yet another interest of Sarphati’s, an important element in the growth of this city built around canals. He envisioned development of a new neighborhood in the city’s south, the section that is today the upscale De Pijp quarter. Not all of his plans were realized, but the park he planned for the area is today still one of the city’s most pleasant, and not only contains a memorial to its founder, but is named for him - Sarphatipark.

During the German occupation of Amsterdam, the bust of Sarphati that is part of the monument was removed from the structure, and the park renamed for an Aryan. Twelve days after the city’s liberation, however, Sarphatipark regained its original name.

He died on June 23, 1866 and was buried next to his wife in the cemetery he helped preserve. Sarphati left behind a very small estate and many debts, as most of his wealth was invested in the projects he spent his life advancing.

A portrait of Dr. Samuel Sarphati by Sybrand Altmann

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