John Taylor, the oculist who blinded Bach and Händel

If I asked you what Bach and Händel had in common, there would be more than one answer. They were both famous composers, born in the same year and originally from what is now Germany. However, there is another thing that links them: they both died practically blind because of eye operations performed on them by a controversial figure, an English surgeon named John Taylor, who was immortalized, by the way, in an opera entitled The Operator.

Taylor was a lot younger than them. Born in Norwich in 1703, he was destined to be a health care professional from an early age because his father was a surgeon, which did not necessarily mean that he had gone to university. It should be borne in mind that at that time the number of qualified doctors was scarce and they tended to work for the wealthy classes, those who could afford to pay their high salaries, so that the less fortunate had to accept being treated by other minor professionals such as barbers and bleeders, if not by quacks or worse.

We do not know what the condition of the father was, but he sent his son to study at St. Thomas Hospital, a prestigious institution founded in 1215 in the heart of London by the Augustinian order and reformed at the end of the 17th century. There he had as his teacher none other than William Cheselden, professor of anatomy and surgery, member of the Royal Society and author of the work Osteography or Anatomy of Bones (considered the first complete description of the human skeletal system), which later promoted the separation between barbers and surgeons, as well as creating the Royal College or Surgeons of England.

William Cheselden giving an anatomy lesson / Image: Wellcomeimages on Wikimedia Commons

Cheselden specialized in bladder stone removal but was also very concerned about eye operations, developing new techniques to solve cataracts. It was this ophthalmic side of the surgery that Taylor chose for his future career when he finished his training. However, the initial stage was not going to be easy and would prove to be prophetic, as he set up a clinic in his hometown but, apparently, there were several patients who were not satisfied with his care and decided to express their discontent by assaulting him and burning down his house.

Consequently, Taylor changed his strategy and instead of settling in a fixed location he bought a carriage that he adapted for the job and with which he began a tour of the country, offering itinerant services. It must have been at this stage that he learned the art of self-publicity, perhaps by imitating the not-so-small number of charlatans who went from town to town selling pharmaceutical elixirs. However, this was not enough to avoid his problems, so he decided to solve them by going back to school; to do so, he went to several universities such as those of Leiden, Basel, Liege or Paris and, in the end, he graduated from the University of Cologne in 1733.

In William Hogarts’ The Company of Undertakers, John Taylor appears in the upper left / Image: Wellcomeimages on Wikimedia Commons

Having a degree in hand changed things enough to allow him to even write a treatise on ophthalmology that he dedicated to his former teacher, Cheselden: An Account of the Mechanism of the Eye. In the book he included some new techniques for treating strabismus (more than debatable, since they were based on nullifying the muscle of the healthy eye) and he described for the first time keratoconus (a degenerative pathology of the cornea), all of which gave him sufficient prestige to treat important personalities, such as the famous historian Edward Gibbon or the diplomat Gottfried van Swieten; The latter was a patron of famous musicians like Haydn, Mozart and – later – Beethoven, which enabled Taylor to make contact with that circle.

The fact is that he continued to climb the social pyramid and was called to court by King George II to be his personal eye doctor. This made him very proud and he called himself a chevalier (knight), although in reality he had no such title. In fact, in an autobiography he wrote in 1761 with the expressive epigraph of The Life and Extraordinary History of the Chevalier John Taylor, he defined himself without false modesty as “Ophthalmiater [sic] Pontifical, Imperial, Royal” because he claimed to have treated the pope, the head of the Holy Roman Empire and the viceroy of India, among others.

Being a royal surgeon did not prevent him from continuing to travel with his carriage; preceded, however, by heralds who praised him and attracted clientele, although it is also true that he accepted to treat the poor, in what malicious gossip considered a mere form of practice. Moreover, he took advantage of his acquired position in the court to gain clientele with the pompous public speeches of self-promotion that he gave when he arrived in each town, to which he attached affordable rates with payment facilities. Afterwards, he would proceed to intervene in the affected eyes and when he finished he would go somewhere else, leaving his patients with the indication that they should not remove their bandages until a few days later.

The reason was that he did not want to take risks like those of his early days, which must have marked him deeply. Most of those operations went wrong (not all of them, some successes did occur); probably not much worse than those performed by other doctors but they did not dazzle their patients by promising them safe healing, as he did with an infinite propagandistic capacity. Note that although cataract operations were already being done in ancient Mesopotamia, they usually did not give the expected result, either because of technical deficiency or because of later infections.

And apparently Taylor, who was also acting without anesthesia, had a huge failure rate, with hundreds of people who not only failed to heal but were blinded forever. A good example of this could be his two most famous patients, the two composers we mentioned at the beginning. It was during a tour through Europe (he even visited Persia). Again gossip said that Taylor hated music because it was an art that did not require the eyes to enjoy it; it is clearly a legend but…

Johann Sebastian Bach, apart from being one of the most important baroque musicians with his Brandenburg Concertos and his Toccata and Fugue in D minor, among other illustrious works, was also a virtuoso of the organ, harpsichord and violin who in the mid 18th century was already suffering from serious health problems, including a progressive blindness that made his work difficult and practically impossible. Current experts believe that this was due to diabetes, although he also had considerable blepharitis.

Taylor was hired to try and fix his vision, operating on him in March 1750 in Leipzig. He considered that it was cataracts, so he opened his eyeball and crushed his lens. A few days later, a second operation was necessary but it was useless and Bach did not recover his vision for the rest of his life, which was very little because after four months he died of a stroke. It is believed that the cause of this was pneumonia, although it is possible that it was influenced by an infection resulting from his eye operation (sterilization was not yet known).

Johann Sebastian Bach in his last months of life (anonymous) / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

As for Georg Friedrich Händel, an English naturalized German who shared the podium with the former in Baroque music and a genius who composed pieces of all kinds, his masterpieces being Music for the Royal Fireworks and, above all, The Messiah, he also suffered from vision problems in one eye. It was thought to be due to an accident he suffered while travelling by carriage in Holland in the summer of 1750 – almost at the same time as Bach’s death – but he had suffered from several paralyses before that. Eventually, the other eye became affected as well.

As this situation made it quite difficult for him to continue with the oratory he was composing, he underwent a cataract operation, performed by Dr. William Bromfield, without any results. It was then decided that Taylor should try it. He did it in Tunbridge Wells, a city of Kent (southeast of England) in a date that is not clear, since some sources speak of 1752 and others of 1758, but whatever it was, with a bad result: in spite of the praises published in the newspapers, Händel not only did not recover his vision but he lost it completely. Did this affect his health? Impossible to say. He died in April 1759 at his home, where he had to be carried unconscious after fainting while conducting a concert.

Georg Friedrich Händel (Balthasar Denner) / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

There was a third composer who required his services: Alessandro di Guardia Diverdi, who was actually called Alejandro Laguardia Olavarrieta and was Spanish, from Laguardia (Álava), where he was born in 1720. He studied with the Jesuits, who were the discoverers of his musical skills and guided him towards them, although he took the habit. His sexual behaviour with his fellow seminarians caused him to be sent to Livorno, where he Italianised his name and spent most of his life as a chapel master.

That doesn’t mean he gave up music. Although he always denied it, perhaps because of some personal conflict between the two, Diverdi studied with Franz Gottlieb Stuckenpeef, a minor musician who became temporarily part of Louis XV’s court. His libertine personality led him to contract a serious syphilis that ended up affecting his vision, and so he contacted John Taylor. But in this case he got rid of his dubious surgical skills when he tried to seduce the eye specialist, causing the latter to leave. This grotesque episode was the right prologue to a truly ironic ending.

As the years went by, Taylor began to lose his eyesight as well. They say he tried to operate on himself and, like his patients, he became worse off than he was, so he spent the last days of his life in darkness. There are doubts about the date of her death, as on some sources it is 1772, while on others it is 1770. In any case, it seems that it happened in Prague, leaving a son and a nephew – who were named the same as him – as continuers of the profession; both were in the service of King George III, a monarch who suffered from porphyria (DNA analysis of his hair also revealed high concentrations of arsenic), so he died mad, deaf… and blind.

Sources: Bach, Handel and the chevalier Taylor (David M. Jackson) / The Reptile Oculist (John Barrell) / The eyes of Johann Sebastian Bach (Richard H. C. Zegers) / Records of my life (John Taylor) / Chevalier Taylor — Ophthalmiater Royal (1703–1772) (Patrick Trevor-Roper) / John Taylor (oculista) (Fandom) / El farsante doctor Taylor y sus damnificados Händel y Bach (Ilustración Médica) /Wikipedia