How did a sideshow performer change the fate of two of history’s greatest composers?
Martin Buzacott examines an unfortunate medical connection between Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach.
The travelling medicine show
He was one of the great sideshow performers of the 18th century, travelling through Europe in his brightly-decorated coach and pulling into towns to perform his act in public squares in front of adoring crowds.
His modus operandi was typical of the travelling entertainers of the time. Prior to his arrival, his minions would put up posters and distribute flyers around the town, promising the rare opportunity for the good burghers to witness his remarkable feats that were the toast of Europe, celebrated even by royalty. And then, with everyone revved up, in he’d come with great pomp and splendour, and do his thing with exaggerated drama. But John Taylor, or “The Chevalier John Taylor” — which was his stage name — wasn’t a strongman or a conjurer or an actor. He was an eye surgeon.
‘Impudence and ignorance’
John Taylor’s coach was emblazoned with garish paintings of eyeballs, accompanied by the motto “Qui dat videre dat viver” or “He who gives sight, gives life.” Born in Norwich, Taylor had trained under the pioneering British surgeon William Cheselden and ended up writing a book titled An Account of the Mechanism of the Eye. Soon, celebrities began to seek him out, including the English historian Edward Gibbon, the Viennese nobleman Gottfried van Swieten (who introduced Mozart to the music of Bach), and King George II appointed him as his personal eye doctor.
Just one problem. The 18th century techniques of eye-surgery were gruesome, with no anaesthetic, no understanding of bacteria, and a less than 30% success rate. Add to that Taylor’s penchant for performing surgery as public entertainment and you ended up with a dangerous celebrity-doctor whose act Dr Samuel Johnson described at the time as an instance of “how far impudence may carry ignorance,” while one modern historian of opthamology dubbed Taylor “the poster-child for 18th century quackery.” Even so, with few alternatives at the time, desperate vision-impaired celebrities continued to flock to him. In two of the most notorious cases, those celebrities included the great composers Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.
As far as modern medical historians can ascertain, Johann Sebastian Bach was a little short-sighted, and as he entered his 60s, he probably developed cataracts. Whatever the specific reason, his vision eventually became so poor that he decided to have his eyes operated on — always a last step for anyone, given the known risks of the surgery. The year was 1750, and the surgeon was none other than “The Chevalier” himself, John Taylor.
It’s believed that Taylor initially used his standard “couching” procedure, in which he jabbed a needle into Bach’s eye and tried to drag the affected lens out of the field of vision. It was unsuccessful, so a week later, Taylor tried again in a second operation. At the end of it, Bach was totally blind. Then, as he adjusted to a world of darkness and having to dictate his music, Bach developed a post-operative infection which, obviously enough, didn’t respond to the prescribed treatment of laxatives and bleeding.
Never regaining his sight, he died within just a few months of his encounter with “The Chevalier.”
Like Bach, George Frideric Handel suffered from cataracts, and he too became increasingly debilitated by his failing eyesight. By the time he started work on his oratorio, Jephtha, he was rapidly going blind, and eventually he had to write on the score: “Reached here on 13 February 1751, unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye.” And again like Bach, Handel too felt he had no option but to undergo the risky “couching” surgery. He endured several painful operations with unknown medicos, but none of them were successful. So in the end, Handel turned to the most notorious eye-doctor of them all, John Taylor.
The result was the same for Handel as for Bach. As the lines in Handel’s oratorio depict it — “Total eclipse. No sun, no moon, all dark.” He too was permanently blinded.
The final irony
The story of Bach, Handel and Taylor is something of a cause celebre among modern medical-historians, who estimate that in fact ‘the Chevalier’ blinded many hundreds of people across Europe. But there was one final irony in the saga of the showman-surgeon, and that is, that he himself went blind and lived the final years of his life up until his death in 1772 in the same darkness that he himself had inflicted on so many others. He, like his patients, became a victim of the medical knowledge of their time, when cataract and other eye-surgeries were nothing like the safe, specialised and successful practices that they have become today.