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Sarphati, The Dutch Sanitation Legend

Updated: Jan 24

He was a man with fearless problem-solving skills, which led to many successes in Amsterdam's sanitation systems. One of the most interesting aspects of his sanitation work is how he approached it from various angles through his different roles. Sarphati was a physician, an urban planner, an entrepreneur, and a legend.

Samuel Sarphati (Credit: Sarphati Amsterdam)

Sarphati, the Physician

Samuel Sarphati was a Dutch Jewish physician born in Amsterdam on January 31, 1813. But if he was a physician, why would he be involved in sanitation? Because Sarphati was a man who contributed outstanding services towards the public health of Amsterdam residents, particularly for the poor. For example, Sarphati helped get public toilets in the city and cleaned up the canals of filth.

Sarphati was born into entrepreneurship, in some ways. His grandmother, a Sephardic Jew of Portuguese heritage, ran a bathhouse until her octogenarian years. His father was a tobacco merchant. At some point, he married a woman whose aristocratic family was known for good acts of anonymity in their community.

As an aspiring physician, he learned about diseases. When a cholera epidemic hit Amsterdam when he was 19, he likely helped at a local hospital. He witnessed people from lower-income areas suffering a lot. Soon after, he started studying medicine formally at Leiden University. After Sarphati completed his studies in 1839 and published his PhD on tuberculosis, he decided to commit himself to the Sephardic Jewish community.

Fun tangential fact: Amsterdam's cholera epidemics made such an impression that "Krijg de klere!" ("Get cholera!") is still a popular swear in local dialect!

He started working as a doctor for the less privileged at the Portuguese-Jewish hospital in Rapenburgstraat. This is where we get the first records of his deep sympathy for poorer individuals; Sarphati paid for the treatment of a sick child who bureaucracy would leave untreated.

At the time, Amsterdam was riddled with disease vectors. Human waste and trash littered Amsterdam's streets and canals. Animal carcasses floated in the waterways. Residents had to contend with noxious smells from this waste they dumped into the canals, and disease outbreaks were common. As a doctor, he soon realized that his patients' symptoms and the regular epidemics came from poor living conditions and bad hygiene practices. Sarphati knew that he had to deal with the root cause of his patients' problems to find lasting solutions and remedies. However, medicine would only get him so far, and he wanted to go further.

Sarphati, the Urban Planner

Sarphati became a city administrator for Amsterdam to make the city a better place to live. He fundraised the money to build local stables for animals, urinals, and other important infrastructure to clean up the streets. He even helped map every corner of the city. As the city started to cleaned up, it started to become wealthier.

In 1848, Amsterdam got hit with another cholera epidemic. Sarphati used this as an opportunity to pass clean water policies and get the Dutch government to improve living conditions for lower-income communities. But, like medicine, even the government had a limit with its progress. So, while he was in the city council, he needed another way.

A boldootkar (Credit: Kronieken uit Oud Amsterdam)

Sarphati, the Entrepreneur

That's how Sarphati also decided to try his hand at entrepreneurship. At the time, waste management was only dealt with by private companies, not the city councils. So, in 1847, Sarphati convinced the city council of the impacts of leaving waste on the streets and started a municipal waste and fertilizer company. With this company, he worked with the city council to organize the collection of solid and fecal waste and transformed it for agricultural use. His business was called the boldootkar (loosely meaning the Boldoot cologne cart).

Another Tangential Fact: This seems like a pretty cheeky name considering there was a very real cologne-making pharmacy in the city called Boldoot, and the carts' contents were absolutely not related.

Nevertheless, the cart was a pretty novel business; at the time, much of Europe was not using waste for fertilizer. So in a sense, Sarphati disrupted the city's poor sanitation systems and developed a circular economy to help Amsterdam thrive.

As a result, Amsterdam became cleaner, and waste heaps started disappearing from the streets and canals. He even started banks to help mobilize finance other important investments for the benefit of the city.

Sarphati kept going. The progress inspired him he saw at the World Exhibition in London in 1851, and determined that Dutch were lagging in its industrialization process. From here, he helped Amsterdam to build new and better public buildings, such as Amstel Hotel. In 1855, he addressed the limited food supply for the poor and started a bread factory, which produced nutritious and affordable loaves. This was life-changing, especially to more disadvantaged citizens.

This is not an exhaustive list of all of his achievements. Still, they were the most impactful for changing the city's sanitary health.

Sarphati Park in Amsterdam (The Netherlands), Left to right: The plaque for the park (in Dutch), Sarphati's bust and memorial (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Sarphati, the Legacy

Unfortunately, in 1866 Sarphati suffered from a short illness and died at 53 – experts believe it may have been typhoid fever. The news of his death shocked many in Amsterdam, and crowds gathered to pay their respects to this revered man. Back then, former Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, Johan Thorbecke said, "Amsterdam and the country had lost one of their most useful citizens."

Twenty years later, the city named a park in his name and included a bust of him to oversee the greenery there. During the unveiling of his statue, Dutch banker and philanthropist Abraham Carel Wertheim said, "I urge you to gaze upon the memorial of Sarphati, so that indifference, fear, doubt and self-interest disappear, and you join the ranks of those who place their country and their city above themselves."

In 2013, a consortium of Dutch water groups, including Aqua For All, started the Sarphati Sanitation Awards in honor of its namesake, supporting entrepreneurial sanitation workers globally. The first winner was Sanergy, a friend of FLUSH! This award has since changed into the Sarphati Sanitation Challenge, helping entrepreneurs look at pathways to scale their sanitation solutions.

Sarphati's life journey is a great lesson in the power of interdisciplinary work. He found that specializing in one way to tackle a complex issue didn't cut it. The power of his sanitation solutions lie in his determination to troubleshoot from different angles, not being committed only to one direction. In modern sanitation efforts, there's a tendency to get stuck in looking at challenges from only one viewpoint - for example, as either an engineering specialty or a public health issue, but often not both. Maybe we all need to take Sarphati's wisdom, though, and tackle our wicked problems with T-shaped professionals; not letting our specialization always dictate how we try to address challenges.

Now, we also need someone to create a walking tour of Samuel Sarphati's changes to Amsterdam. Unsurprisingly, we really want to join it as toilet tourists.

NB: This blog was updated in May 2023 to include new images of Sarphati Park.

Special thanks to Georgina Mukwirimba for helping get this blog post started and Wouter IJzermans for fact-checking and adding a fun side tangent!

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