John Taylor, the scoundrel who blinded Bach and Handel

This video could be alternatively titled, “John Taylor the Awful Oculist”. Or, “John Taylor, Musical Murderer”. Or “John Taylor, the Human Failure”. Or simply, “John Taylor, Human Garbage”. I could go all day.

On this channel, we generally celebrate heroes in Classical music – people who have brought us amazing music to enjoy hundreds of years later. But what about the musical antagonists? People who mutilated and murdered our beloved composers?

Generally I take a neutral stance, but today I’m going to let my venom and vitriol fly! Let’s get going, shall we?

John Taylor, oculist

You instantly know how much of a wanker John Taylor was when you discover that he gave himself the nickname “Chevalier”, which means knight. He called himself a knight.

I’ll also have you know that this was my Google search, in my attempt to keep this channel clean and PG:

John Taylor the self-appointed knight unfortunately lived to be 72 years old, and he was an “eye surgeon”. I say that in air quotes because he basically mutilated people’s eyes for fun, made a bunch of fanfare about himself, and was constantly hitting the road to avoid people demanding their money back. And, you know, getting murdered for being such an asshat nimrod.

Since he self-promoted his way to fame, he ended up blinding what we can only assume are hundreds of people, including our beloved Bach and Handel, Baroque-era music legends.

John Taylor’s surgeries on Bach and Handel

He operated on Bach and Handel in relatively close succession – on Bach in March of 1750, and Handel in 1751. Handel went on to live until 1759, but when did Bach die? In July 1750. So not only did John Taylor blind Bach, he was responsible for his death.

But he declared both surgeries a success.

Bach’s blindness

Bach sought out eye surgery since he was beginning to go blind, likely due to cataracts. He had his first treatment from John Taylor in March, and the second treatment in April. The surgery detached his retina and he died a few months later due to an infection caused from the surgery.

Other common treatments, in addition to having his eye cut apart? He was given laxatives and good ol’ bloodletting.

Handel’s handicap

In Handel’s case, touring the countryside was no joke – he was injured in a carriage accident in the Netherlands in 1750. Probably because of the accident, one of his eyes became wonky – it likely developed a cataract. Enter John Taylor to make a bad situation worse – Handel was completely blind a year after the surgery.

And then, blind, he went on to live another 8 years. He could still perform music (due to his excellent memory), but he needed assistance in all other aspects of his life.

The procedure

Here’s how eye surgery worked in the 1700s:

Imagine a world where no one understands bacteria, and infection kills people all the time. Now imagine getting an operation in such a world.

To get rid of cataracts, oculists would do something called “couching” – this meant using a small and sharp hook to dislodge the lens and removing the cloudiness, allowing light to re-enter. All without anesthesia. If the surgery was a success, the patient would use gigantic, thick glasses for the rest of their life in order to see clearly, since their own eye lens was removed.

Since there was no anesthesia, the idea was to do the procedure as fast as possible – which makes sense if you want to minimize pain, but is terrible if surgical accuracy is your goal.

Unsurprisingly, couching is terrible and has a brutal success rate. Some small minority of people might be able to see a bit of light and movement, but over 70% are straight-up blinded.

Bach, Handel and the many other victims of this surgery weren’t blind to the risks (pardon the terrible pun) – they knew they were putting themselves at risk. But they also probably believed some of the pomp and promotion of Taylor, and thought the odds of any success were higher than they actually were.

John Taylor’s Pageantry

John Taylor had an ego and probably a strong case of narcissism. His touring coach was something from out of a traveling sideshow, with paintings of eyeballs and the motto “Qui dat videre dat viver” (He who gives sight, gives life.)

He would perform surgeries publicly, like some kind of twisted Baroque-era reality show, and then booked it out of town before the patients took off their bandages. Before these public surgeries, he would do a self-promoting speech; the Baroque-era infomercial.

There’s so much that makes John Taylor a douchenozzle clown, but what takes the cake is that he clearly knew he was ruining people forever. Otherwise, why would he be constantly skipping town, hopping from one place to the next? He once confessed to blinding hundreds of patients – he knew his surgery practice was bogus. But he claimed to be a wonderful oculist and sought out crowds.

Death

In an appropriate twist of fate, John Taylor died a nobody who was completely blind, so at least there’s some justice in the world.

Self-promotion

So how did the charlatan John Taylor become so famous in the first place? Well, he hit up the celebs. Operate on a few celebs, get in the inner circle, and suddenly you’re the royal eye surgeon to King George II.

His ego was gigantic enough to warrant him writing a two-volume autobiography titled “The Life and Extraordinary History of the Chevalier John Taylor”. And just so you know, I refused to get anywhere near that book for research purposes. That title tells us enough. It tells us that John Taylor was a giant scheisshund prat.

conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this look at a Baroque antagonist. For more information on Bach, check out his history. You can also take a look at Handel’s famous Hallelujah chorus.

xo,

Allysia