Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Why Did Bach Go Blind?

• February 26, 2013 • 9:00 AM

An ophthalmologist concludes the great composer suffered from secondary glaucoma following a botched eye operation.

Among medical mysteries involving master musicians, it doesn’t quite match the still-mysterious death of Mozart at age 35. But precisely why Johann Sebastian Bach went totally blind less than four months before his death in 1750 remains an open question—as well as the portal to a poignant story.

More than two-and-a-half centuries after the fact, a prominent Finnish ophthalmologist is offering what he calls a “plausible diagnosis” of the great composer: intractable secondary glaucoma, brought on by a botched eye operation.

In a paper published in the journal Acta Ophthalmologica, Ahti Tarkkanen outlines the medical and historical information that led him to this conclusion. He also notes that Bach’s life might literally have been brighter—and perhaps even longer—if he had lived, or even traveled, about 500 miles to the west.

Tarkkanen, professor emeritus of ophthalmology at the University of Helsinki and director emeritus of the Helsinki University Eye Hospital, notes that after Bach’s eyesight began to decline, he had both eyes operated on by traveling British eye surgeon John Taylor. Tarkkanen puts the word “surgeon” in quotes, which gives you some idea of his lack of respect for this particular practitioner.

Daniel Albert, the author of Men of Vision, a history of ophthalmology, calls Taylor “the poster child for 18th century quackery,” noting that 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.”

The records of Bach’s care are inexact, but we know that Taylor operated on one or both of his eyes during the final days of March 1750. At least one (and possibly both) had to be operated on again one week later, due to the reappearance of the cataract. This second operation left Bach totally blind.

Taylor performed a “couching,” which is the oldest (dating from 2000 B.C.) and crudest form of cataract surgery. Still in use in some parts of Africa and India, it involves dislocating the cataract lens with a sharp or blunt instrument, and pushing it back into the posterior chamber of the eye.

Tarkkanen points to a 2009 study from Sudan that examined the ultimate outcome of 60 contemporary couching patients. It found 60 percent of them were totally blind, due to glaucoma.

He strongly suspects the father of Western music suffered the same fate. “Because Bach was blind after the second operation, and suffered from immense pain of the eyes and the body, the symptoms could be compatible with acute secondary glaucoma,” he writes.

Tarkkanen does not see an obvious cause-and-effect relationship between the operations and Bach’s death on July 28th, at age 65. But in a 2005 paper examining this same subject (which Tarkkanen draws from), physician Richard Zegers notes that “the operations, bloodlettings, and/or purgatives would have weakened him and predisposed him to new infections.”

Indeed, Taylor’s postoperative regimen reads more like torture than therapy. It included the use of “eye drops of blood from slaughtered pigeons, pulverized sugar or baked salt,” Zegers writes. “In the case of serious inflammation, Taylor prescribed large doses of mercury.”

Tragically, a more modern method was being tested in the nation next door. In 1747—three years before Bach’s operation—Paris-based ophthalmologist Jacques Daviel conducted the first cataract operation using a new, safer, more effective method. His “extracapsular technique” would soon become the standard procedure for cataract operations, and remain so until the early 20th century.

But it was too late for Bach, or for the other great composer of that era, George Frederick Handel. In 1751, he, too, underwent Taylor’s crude cataract surgery—and, like Bach, was left blind.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.


December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?


December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.


Follow us


Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.