By Ciara Griffiths
It is no exaggeration to say that medicine has come a long way since the eighteenth century. Gone are the days when graverobbing was the standard method of obtaining cadavers for research and teaching in medical schools, when operations were conducted on conscious patients (anaesthesia was not invented until 1846), when opium and laudanum were acceptable painkillers, bleeding was a standard treatment to remove bad ‘humours’ and no concept of germs existed. A knife used in an autopsy could be used again in an operation that same day, without being cleaned. The best doctors might only be accessible to those who could afford one and no public health service was conceived. We are extremely lucky.
I would not be here today were it not for the brilliant work at Great Ormond Streat Hospital, and I am sure many in our visually impaired community have people to thank. Now imagine being visually impaired in the 18th century seeking medical consultation. In this hypothetical timeline, you might have come across one ‘Chevalier’ John Taylor. Today, we would call him an ophthalmologist, but he used the term oculist. He had many patients across Europe, but his most famous is Johann Sebastian Bach. It is Bach who he is credited for blinding.
John Taylor was born in 1703 in Norwich. His father was a surgeon so naturally, he followed suit. Or rather, he was forced to follow suit when an incident with a Quaker’s wife forced him to flee to London. There, he entered St Thomas’ Hospital to study under professor and renowned surgeon William Cheselden. He was a reputable student and was advised to pursue ophthalmology which he had performed so highly in during his training. Following his professor’s advice, he became an oculist after graduating and in 1727 published An Account of the Mechanism of the Eye.
From here, he toured Britain and Europe. He made sure not to stay in the same place at once, lest people catch up to him after a failed surgery. So whenever he moved, aside from the odd account, he was backed by acclaimed surgical skill and results. He revelled in this new status and happily accepted degrees from varying universities which he attended to broaden his knowledge – and reputation, no doubt. He would perform surgeries publicly, allowing him to gain valuable friends and influence within the nobility and the courts of Europe.
When he arrived in Amsterdam in 1749, the authorities became dubious. A statement issued by the medical faculty of Amsterdam condemned Taylor’s methods and after a series of investigations, concluded that the overwhelming successes had been fabricated, either by Taylor himself or by people willing to back him or offer a pretty sum. Taylor was attacked by newspapers, mobs and doctors. He sued the medical faculty for libel and promptly left the city, never to return.
He arrived in Leipzig in 1750 where Johann Sebatian Bach was residing. By now he had branded himself ‘chevalier John Taylor’, chevalier being French for knight. This was a good piece of PR on Taylor’s part. So much so that Bach was persuaded by his friends to consult the chevalier. Bach’s ocular complaint is not known (myopia, extreme short-sightedness, is the main diagnosis), but his sight had been declining for several years and now the situation was dire. All his composing life, he had been working hard in dim candlelight, often late at night. Music had been his life, so he was desperate when he came to Taylor with cataracts.
His cataracts could only be removed through a painful operation. Operations in general were dangerous in this period: blood loss, infection and even death were all too common. In the late eighteenth century, the most famous surgeon at the time, John Hunter, advised his students never to operate unless it was the only option. He was well aware of the risks and so was Bach, but to save his music, it was a risk he was willing to take.
The standard way to remove cataracts at this time was ‘couching’. Instead of removing the cataract as is done today, the cataract would have been pushed down to allow light to enter the eye. To remove the composer’s cataract, Taylor would have passed a needle or hook through the edge of the cornea to manipulate the cataract. The procedure was done while the patient was seated, either strapped to a chair or held down by assistants. Taylor would have pushed the cataract down until Bach could see ‘properly’. Once he informed the surgeon he could see, the surgery was complete. And Bach was awake for the whole thing.
At first, the operation seemed to be a success as Bach’s vision was restored once the bandages were removed – temporarily. However, Bach’s eye damage was long-term, no doubt hastened by Taylor’s procedure. Taylor recommended and performed another one, but to no success. After going completely blind, Bach suffered immense pain in his eyes and died in 1758. A Dutch newspaper, the same newspaper which had condemned Taylor back in his adventures in Amsterdam, accused him of fabricating the operation’s success once again. He was subsequently accused of causing the composer’s death, pain and fever. While I think it is unfair to pin the blame entirely on Taylor, given Bach’s final days were plagued by other symptoms unrelated to his eyes and he was treated by other doctors, the painful surgery and the follow-up surgery which worsened the damage, triggering infection which was ‘treated’ with bloodletting, played a key factor in the composer’s discomfort. Unsurprisingly, Taylor was quick to leave Leipzig.
He tried to settle in Berlin, which was then part of Prussia, but the damage was done. After two failed surgeries which resulted in blindness, he was given a not-so-polite move-on order from Frederick II of Prussia. More unsuccessful surgeries followed and it was discovered that he had lied about being given a Portuguese cross by the King (this was just a piece of jewellery). Disgraced, shunned from high society circles, high in debt, condemned by doctors and with his fabricated stories revealed, he was forced back to Britain where his own sight began to decline. As with many of the figures we have met on this blog, there have been gaps. In this case, the circumstances of Taylor’s death – the time and place – are unknown. He died in the 1770s, possibly in Europe, forever immortalised in William Hogarth’s The Company of Undertakers. He is depicted alongside two of the age’s most infamous quacks.
What are we to make of Taylor? Can he really be blamed for blinding Bach? At the outset, he is a charlatan and a quack with debatable success rates. Yet, he did attend university, receive doctorates from renowned European institutions and study medicine. He would not have been advised by a respectable anatomist to pursue ophthalmology if he was terrible at it. Taylor had a degree and is noted for his illustrations and descriptions of the eye and its abnormalities, including what we would now know to be glaucoma. He was a man who saw people in need and set out to help them. Whether he did so successfully is another matter, but he was working with 18th century medical knowledge. Were the newspapers’ lampooning justified? Why did someone with professional medical qualifications fake noble titles? Was he a quack with a knack for PR, or did he suffer at the hands of real, envious quacks who have gone unpunished? Characters like Taylor, as colourful and controversial as they may be, are an important way of understanding medicine’s journey.
Schwartz, S. G. Leffler, C. T. Grzybowski, A. Koch. H. and Bermudez, D. The Taylor Dynasty; Three Generations of 18th-19th Century Oculists (2015). Hist Ophthal Intern.
Lenth, B. (1938) Bach and the English Oculist. Music & Letters, vol. 19, no. 2, 1938, pp. 182–98
Moore, W. (2006) The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching and the Birth of modern surgery. Broadway Books, USA