What’s the Little-Known Story Handel and Bach Share?
MADISON, Wis. -The beautiful strains of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio evoke a very different picture from the dark bond the two composers shared: each was blinded by botched eye surgery at the hands of a flamboyant quack.
A University of Wisconsin-Madison ophthalmologist says both Handel and Bach underwent eye surgery at the hands of an “oculist” called the Chevalier John Taylor.
“Taylor was the poster child for 18th century quackery,” says Dr. Daniel Albert, the author of Men of Vision, a history of ophthalmology. The book has a chapter on Taylor’s colorful, if gruesome, career.
Handel, who died 250 years ago this year, lived with declining vision for the last decade of his life following failed cataract surgery by Taylor. Bach died a few months after his surgery for what was described as a painful eye condition, which Albert believes may have been cataracts and a detached retina. A post-operative infection likely killed Bach.
And probably, neither expected the operations to work out well, says Albert, professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. At the time, physicians had no concept of bacteria, and no anesthesia, so the idea was to operate as quickly as possible.
“If you had a good result a third of the time, it was par for the course,” Albert says of 18th century techniques. “People didn’t expect a good outcome; they knew if they put themselves in the hands of an eye surgeon, they were taking a big chance.”
Of course, the risks may have been greater with a charlatan like Taylor. Albert describes him as “the most infamous of all ophthalmic quacks.” His arrival into town would be heralded by placards and handbills, and his coach was decorated with paintings of eyeballs and the motto: “Qui dat videre dat viver” (He who gives sight, gives life.)
“He practiced in the most flamboyant way, drawing crowds to watch procedures in the town square–and then getting out of town before the patients took their bandages off,” says Albert, who is Emmett A. Humble Distinguished Director of the UW Eye Research Institute
In Bach’s case, not only did his surgery and a second one fail, but he developed a painful post-operative infection and was treated with laxatives and the favorite cure of his day: bleeding. He was blind when he dictated his final work, and died a few months later.
Handel also underwent the cataract procedure known as “couching,” in which a needle was poked into the eye and the cataract-clouded lens pushed into the rear, out of the field of vision. He had the surgery several times, probably the last one at the hands of Taylor. None of the surgeries worked and he grew blind. The lyrics to Samson–“Total eclipse. No sun, no moon, all dark”–were written as Handel’s eyesight failed. Today, surgeries in which cataracts are removed and the lens replaced are among ophthalmology’s most successful procedures.
Why didn’t these two Georgian-era celebrities seek out someone better? Quite simply, there wasn’t much alternative.
“At that time, even the best surgeons of the day practiced a very crude type of medicine,” Albert says.
So when you hear the Hallelujah Chorus this season, give thanks that the standard of care for ophthalmology has improved so much since the golden age of the great composers.