As JS Bach approached his 65th birthday, his busy life had started to take its toll on his health. The church authorities in Leipzig had already sounded out a possible successor to him as Cantor at St Thomas’s should the unthinkable happen and, of a more immediate concern, his sight had also deteriorated. After years of poring over manuscripts in semi-darkness not only was he scarcely able to see but, to quote his first biographer Johann Forkel, he also ‘had a very painful disorder in the eyes’.
Who was John Taylor?
Never fear, however, as help was soon to be at hand. Step forward one John Taylor, the eminent British eye surgeon, on whose glittering CV was listed the post of official oculist to George II and whose previous patients had included the Pope, no less. Something of a celebrity and no stranger to the power of PR, Taylor spread his fame by taking himself on European tours, on which he would bring his healing powers to the people of one city before moving onto the next. Before arriving at each venue, he would send pamphlets in advance to alert the locals of his impending visit, nor did he exactly keep a low profile when there – travelling everywhere in a lavish carriage decorated with pictures of eyes, he would preface each operation with a public lecture, delivered with Cicero-like oratorical skill.
Taylor’s tour of Spring 1750 took in the city of Leipzig where, on 1 April, Bach came under the great man’s knife. Though Taylor had treatments for all manner of ocular ailments in his armoury, in this instance a relatively routine operation for cataracts was what was required. Known as ‘couching’, his method involved inserting a hooked needle through the cornea and into the cloudy material in the eye and breaking it up into pieces. A painful procedure, yes, but also, according to the contemporary newspaper accounts of Taylor’s work, an effective one. After the first operation, Bach underwent a second treatment in the following week, at which point Taylor packed his bags and headed off to this next port of call, Berlin. Job done.
Did the operation on Bach’s eyes work?
Reports suggest that, at first, Taylor’s treatment of Bach was a success, with the composer regaining ‘full sharpness of his sight’. Note the ‘at first’, however. Very soon after, he had become completely blind – Taylor was, in fact, little more than a quack. A royally endorsed quack, yes, but still a quack. With scant regard paid to hygiene while he worked, his operations were frequently followed by serious medical complications, more often than not brought on by infection. Conveniently, though, he was rarely around to face the ire of his patients and their families as, by the time the full effects of his treatment had become evident, the Taylor bandwagon had long rolled out of town.
Despite his condition, Bach continued to compose, with his dutiful son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol putting his thoughts onto paper. But his time was running out. When, in July, he miraculously claimed to have recovered his sight, it was believed to be little more than a hallucination. Within hours he had slipped into a coma and by the end of the month, the greatest composer of his era was dead. Whether or not his death came directly as a result of Taylor’s treatment remains unknown.
What happened to Taylor?
Taylor himself continued his touring lifestyle, and it is believed that he might also have operated on Handel in 1758 – again, shortly before the composer’s death. Eventually, however, his audiences and patients became sceptical. When he died in obscurity in 1772, he was himself, ironically, blind.
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