Poster Child Quack “Chevalier” John Taylor Blinds Johann Sebastian Bach

Reconstruction of J. S. Bach’s face from the Center for Forensic and Medical Art, 2008.  This reconstruction was based on (1) a laser scan of Bach’s skull and (2) contemporary documents.


“Bach was known to have played organ without glasses even in his presbyopic age. Hence, it has been postulated that he had been myope of around −2.o dioptres (Zegers 2005).

“At the age of 64 years, his vision had started to decline. The Mayor of Leipzig had been asked for measures in case Bach would become unable to take care of his duties. After persuasion of his friends, Bach had his both eyes operated by a travelling British eye ‘surgeon’ John Taylor (1703–1772) who happened to be in Leipzig.

Portrait of “Chevalier” John Taylor (1703 to 1772) from the National Library of Medicine.   Daniel Albert refers to John Taylor as a “poster child for 18th century quackery” who “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.”

“Taylor had after his surgical training started his practice in Switzerland where he had blinded hundreds of patients. In London, he had operated on Georg Friedrich Händel (1685–1759), who became blind (Jackson 1968). Taylor was travelling all over Europe, Russia and Persia. He was marketing effectively his services. His coach was painted with eyes and the words ‘qui dat videre dat vivere’ (giving sight is giving life). His services were expensive. He charged large amounts of money and accepted even valuables such as gold watches as the payment. In ophthalmic surgery, he was ahead in strabismus surgery. He was also the first to describe keratoconus (Zegers 2005).

“Cataract couching could be carried out in open air such as markets in front of the spectators. The patient was sitting in upright position and one or two helpers kept him steady. No anaesthetics were available, only alcohol and opium to relieve pain. Taylor made an incision a little larger than 4 mm about 3.5 mm posterior to the limbus. A planoconvex needle was introduced into the posterior chamber and the lens luxated inferiorly into the vitreous (Zegers 2005).

“Taylor’s first operation on Bach has taken place between March 28 and 31, 1750, and the second between April 5 and 7. (Zegers 2005). About a week after the first operation, a reoperation had to be performed because of ‘reappearance of the cataract’. The postoperative therapy consisted of blood letting, laxatives and eye drops from slaughtered pigeons, pulverized sugar or baked salt. Taylor could also perform periocular incisions which were covered with bandages that incorporated baked apple or corn. For inflammations, large doses of mercury were prescribed (Zegers 2005).

“Certainly, Hippocrates’ universal injunction to all physicians ‘Primun non necere’–‘above all, do no harm’ which is valid also today, was continuously violated by Taylor.

“After the second operation, Bach was blind and suffered of immense pain of the eyes and the body. He was confined to bed and unable even to play an organ. At this moment, Taylor had moved on and disappeared from Leipzig. Bach asked his son Johann Cristoph Friedrich to write down a chorale Vor Deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before the Throne of God I stand). This is often performed as 14th movement of the partially uncompleted Die Kunst der Fugen. A few days before his death, Bach claimed that for a few moments he could see his wife Anna. She began to sing on her husband’s wish ‘All men have to die’ and the people in the room joined. Bach developed a stroke and died on 28 July 1750 3 months and 3 weeks after his eye surgery.”