Menus Subscribe Search

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

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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