By Linda de Vries
Sometime between March 28 and March 31 of 1750, Sebastian had eye surgery. In 1750 Easter Sunday was March 29, so March 28 seems a likely day for the surgery, although it could have been on the Monday or the Tuesday following Easter.
Sebastian’s eyesight began to fail in the last years of his life. In 1749 the Leipzig Council had begun searching for his successor. In 1750, on the advice of friends, he decided to undergo cataract surgery.
He selected a traveling English oculist and eye “surgeon” named John Taylor, who dubbed himself “Chevalier John Taylor,” suggested that he had been granted some sort of order of merit. Taylor also claimed the title of “Opthalmiater Royal,” personal eye surgeon to King George II and the Pope.
Taylor maintained a flamboyant practice. He traveled from town to town throughout Europe in a coach painted with eyeballs. He sent lackeys in advance to distribute handbills and gather a crowd in the town square to observe his surgery. Before each operation he declaimed long speeches in an idiosyncratic oratorical style. After the surgeries he bandaged the eyes of his patients, instructed them to keep the covering on for seven days, and then left town before the bandages were removed! It is reported that he was completely blind during the last years of his life—poetic justice perhaps.
The writer Samuel Johnson described Taylor’s life and career as an example of “how far impudence may carry ignorance.” Daniel Albert, the author of Men of Vision, a history of ophthalmology, calls Taylor “the poster child for 18th century quackery.”
The procedure Taylor performed on Sebastian (and on his fellow-Thuringian-turned-Brit George Frideric Handel) was called “couching,” an operation dating back to 2000 BCE and still performed in parts of the world today. It involves poking a needle into the cataract-clouded lens and pushing it back into the rear of the eye, out of the field of vision.
As was often the case, the surgery failed and Sebastian required a second surgery a week later. He developed a painful post-operative infection, acute secondary glaucoma, which left him totally blind. He was treated with the most “advanced” practices of the day—bleeding, enemas, and, says Finnish ophthalmologist Ahti Tarkkanen, eye drops made from the blood of dead pigeons mixed with either pulverized sugar or baked salt. For serious inflammation, large doses of mercury were given.
Sebastian spent the last months of his life in a darkened room, revising his chorale preludes (See March 19). Then, it is reported, he awoke on the morning of July 28, 1750, to find that he could again see quite clearly. If this return of sight occurred, it was most likely Charles Bonnet Syndrome, named after a Swiss naturalist who first described the condition in 1769. It was first accepted in English-speaking psychiatry in1982. The patient experiences visual hallucinations in which characters and objects appear smaller than normal. Between 10% and 40% of elderly patients with vision loss experience Bonnet syndrome, thought to result from damage to the optic nerve, macular degeneration, or peripheral vision loss from glaucoma.
Sebastian died later that same day at 9:15 p.m., most probably from a stroke and not as a direct result of the eye surgery. (See March 4 for his burial and entombment.)
Ironically, three years earlier in Paris, ophthalmologist Jacques David conducted the first more modern and successful cataract surgery.