Johann Sebastian Bach and

National Eye Care Month

January is National Eyecare Montha reminder that until recently untreatable eye conditions could curtail productivity at any stage of life; and disastrous attempts at surgical remedies would more often than not bring life to an end.

Two such surgeries surely led to the decline and death of the composer whose towering masterpiece the ACO will be performing on March 7 at Alice Tully Hall. 

In 1749, when Johann Sebastian Bach was completing his B Minor Mass (buy tickets to it below), cataracts had rendered the sixty-four-year-old blind or very nearly so. The following year, at the urging of friends, he agreed to engage the itinerant English oculist, self-styled "Chevaliar" John Taylor, to perform surgery on his eyes in Leipzig.  

By medical standards of the day, Taylor (1703- 1772) wasn't a total quack. Trained as a surgeon in England, with follow-up study in the Netherlands and France, he had published a bookAn Account of the Mechanism of the Eyewhile still in his early twenties.

During his first practice in Switzerland he blinded (by his own confession, years later) hundreds of patients before taking to the road in a coach painted with images of eyes and the words qui dat videre dat vivere (he who gives sight gives life).

On travels across Europe, Russia, and Persia, Taylor operated on royalty, nobility, and celebrities—charging hefty sums for his services. On the plus side, in his scientific publications he was the first to correctly describe and illustrate several eye conditions. He also invented, although he didn't perfect, a few surgical techniques that would be regarded as ahead of their time.

On the (weightier) minus side, nearly all of Taylor's eye surgeries were unsuccessful.    

How did he get away with it?  Per his instructions, bandages were to stay on for nearly a week. By the time a patient took them off, the celebrity-tour oculist had already moved on to his next victims in a different city. Still, his shameless self-promotion and terrible outcomes did not go uncriticized.

As the British writer and critic Samuel Johnson (1708-1794) put it, Taylor's life represented a syndrome that can be observed in public life to this day: "how far impudence may carry ignorance."

Taylor performed his first surgery on Bach in late March 1750, and his second a week later (when the first didn't go as planned). From his own articles, Taylor's pre-surgical routine involved lengthy oration, while his medical approach called for bloodletting, laxatives, eye drops made of pigeon blood, pulverized sugar and baked salt, and large doses of mercury.

His bandages incorporated baked apples and coins. Even in this pre-antiseptic era, fellow surgeons correctly suspected that his insistence of days of bandaging raised the risk of infection.   

It was reported (possibly by Taylor) that Bach felt some improvement after the first surgery. But the second surgery left him blind and unwell. A few months later, the composer suffered a stroke followed by high fevers. On July 28, 1750only four months after his second operationJohann Sebastian Bach died.

Eight years later, Taylor is believed to have also operated on Georg Frideric Handel—exacerbating the composer's declining health and hastening his death in April 1759. Yet Taylor would claim both procedures a total success.

Writing in the Journal of American Medicine, Dutch ophthalmologist and researcher Richard H. C. Zegers acknowledged the many unknowns of Bach's eye surgeries, while concluding with thoughts we can all agree on:

"What's indisputable is the body of music Bach left us, sounding still as fresh today as it did the day he put it on paper. Whatever eye diseases Bach might have suffered during his life, they never stopped him from creating divine music."

Carolyn Swartz, ACO Communications


While other sources were used, a good deal of information in this piece derives from "The Eyes of Johann Sebastian Bach," by Richard, H.C. Zegers, published in JAMA Ophthalmology

by the American Medical Association on October 1, 2005.

Please Donate Now!

Click below to view the trailer for ACO's Peter and the Wolf, produced in collaboration with WNET Learning Group, and featuring mimes Catherine

Join our Patron Society

or get a discounted Lincoln Center Subscription

to our two upcoming concerts.

For individual concert tickets, click below:

Enjoy ACO podcasts, blogs and videos


TACOTalk podcast


In the Maestro's Shoes

The ACO Journal

Thank you for supporting ACO

The American Classical Orchestra welcomes your support at any level. Help us continue our concert programming and our enrichment of the lives of schoolchildren through our award-winning education-outreach program, Classical Music for Kids.