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Amsterdam Orphans

The roman catholic orphanage for girls in Amsterdam existed from 1570 until 1952. Archives speak of a high mortality rate in the Amsterdam orphanages. Lack of fresh air, living in close proximity - often several children slept in one bed and ate from one bowl – a deficient diet and the epidemics that raged through the city were hazardous to the health of these orphans.

This project is focused on the living circumstances of these orphans girls in the 19th century. Deceased children were buried in the cemetery ‘de Liefde’ which was founded in ca. 1850 and given up in c.1900 AD. From this cemetery 1500 skulls were recovered in the beginning of the 20 th century.  These skulls form the material on which the study on health and disease is founded.

Onderzoek weeshuis beeld pand


Research is focused on age at death, health and diet of the orphans girls in the second half of the 19 th century. A pilot has been performed to study the pathological features on the skulls and the teeth. These  show a variety of diseases and general bad health. The first results show a range of pathological traits associated with i.e. anemia, scurvy, congenital syphilis, dental developmental defects and bad dental health (caries and ante mortem tooth loss). Chemical analysis of a small sample shows that these children often were starving before entering the orphanage and therefore had a very bad start in life. Although their circumstances were better during their stay in the orphanage they died at a young age.

The research is interdisciplinary involving archival studies, physical anthropology, paleopathology, odontology, isotope and molecular research.

Onderzoek weeshuis beeld weeskinderen


Initial funding is provided by the Foundation Roman Catholic Orphanage ‘het Maagdenhuis’ in Amsterdam and the Amsterdam University Fund. The results of the pilot study will be used for a grant application for further research.


  • Dr. Laura Font: FALW-Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam  (isotope analysis)
  • Prof. A Malgosa : Department of anthropology, University of Barcelona, Spain (bacterial DNA)
  • Dr. R. Montiel : Laboratorio Nacional de Genómica para la Biodiversidado, Guanajuato, México (bacterial DNA)
  • Prof. Dr. ir. B.J.F. (Bart) Keijser: TNO in Zeist, ACTA in Amsterdam (bacterial analysis calculus)

More information

Dr. E. (Liesbeth) Smits

ACASA Amsterdam Centre for Ancient Studies and Archaeology