November 3, 1752 Quacks

As for the man who blinded Händel and all but murdered Bach, he worked most of his 72 years blinding hundreds of unfortunates before he himself, lost his sight. The English writer Samuel Johnson later described the man’s life as “an instance of how far impudence may carry ignorance.”

From Brahms to Beethoven, Mendelssohn to Mozart, German composers have formed the core and the nucleus, of western music. And not just the classical stuff. Frankfurt-born Hans Zimmer has composed scores for over 150 different films including The Lion King, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gladiator, and the Dark Knight trilogy. The German-born Persian composer Ramin Djawadi may not be a household name but we know his scores for the 2008 Marvel film Iron Man and season 7 of Game of Thrones, both nominated, for Grammy Awards. The German-American singer/songwriter Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. may not be a household name but his stage name certainly is. We remember him, as John Denver.

1685 was a good year for German composers, George Frideric Händel born on February 23 in Halle and Johann Sebastian Bach barely a month later, in Eisenbach. Bach’s father Johann Ambrosius was a 7th generation musician and encouraged the boy, to learn the violin. Not so Händel ‘s father. A respected barber-surgeon aged 63 at the time of Händel’s birth to his second wife Dorothea, Georg expected his son to study civil law.

Little George found means to smuggle a clavichord into an attic room where he would steal away to practice, while his parents slept.

The boy was yet to turn ten when he accompanied his father to the court of the Duke of Johann, Adolf I. Somehow, George found himself on the organ stool and, when he began to play, Georg could only wonder where THAT came from. The Duke was so impressed he persuaded his father to allow him to study music and the rest, is history.

J.S. Bach was only ten when he lost both of his parents, only eight months apart. It was an uncle, Johann Christoph, who introduced the boy to the organ. Like Händel , Bach went on to become one of the most prolific composers of the Baroque era.

From 1727 to this day the anthem Zadok the Priest is performed at coronation ceremonies, of British royalty. The magnificent strains of George Frideric Händel’s “Messiah” and Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” are favorites, of the Christmas season.  And yet there is another, darker connection between the two men. While the two never met both composers were blinded, by the same quack physician.

In the Dutch language a kwakzalver is a seller of cures, nostrums and potions of dubious origin, and little efficacy.   In 1665 an outbreak of Bubonic Plague ravaged London causing doctors to flee by the score leaving quacksalvers and charlatans to pray on the vulnerable, and the fearful.

So bad was it Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, penned the following: 

“Infallible preventive pills against the plague.” “Neverfailing preservatives against the infection.” “Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.” “Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.” “Anti-pestilential pills.” “Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.” “An universal remedy for the plague.” “The only true plague water.” “The royal antidote against all kinds of infection”;—and such a number more that I cannot reckon up; and if I could, would fill a book of themselves to set them down.

Daniel Defoe

British surgeon Dale Ingram remarked: “Every one [of the quacks in London] was at liberty to prescribe what nostrum he pleased, and there was scarce a street in which some antidote was not sold, under some pompous title.”

Clark Stanley claimed to have studied with native Hopi shaman and learned the medicinal benefits, of snake oil. The original snake oil salesman made a tidy sum until the US Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, in 1906. In 1917, investigators discovered that Stanley’s elixir was nothing but ordinary mineral oil and beef fat flavored with red pepper, and turpentine. William Bailey’s RadiThor, a nostrum for the cure of erectile dysfunction was basically radium, dissolved in water. Ebenezer Byers, the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist who won the 1906 US Amateur golf tournament was so enamored of the stuff he drank two to three bottles, every day. The federal government shut RadiThor down in 1932 but not before Byers met a horrible end, his skeleton destroyed and much of his skull eaten away, his jawless body buried, in a lead lined coffin. In 1822, British businessman James Morrison cured his own “inexpressible suffering” with a home made vegetable pill said to cure, whatever ails you. Morrison’s “vegetable universal medicines” were roundly criticized by the medical establishment of the time, but that didn’t seem to hurt business. In 1836 one of Morrison’s resellers was convicted of manslaughter when the post-mortem of one unfortunate revealed a belly full of Morrison’s pills, to be the cause of death.

Which brings us to John Taylor and no, I’m not talking about the founding member, of Duran Duran. The self-styled “Chevalier” (knight) John Taylor was an oculist, Royal Eye Surgeon to none other than Britain’s King George, II.

Flamboyant, egotistical and utterly without principle, Taylor would ride into town in a horse drawn carriage painted with images of eyes and the words qui dat videre dat vivere (giving sight is giving life), painted on the side. Victims err, I mean patients of this Baroque era ShamWow pitchman were instructed to leave the bandage on for seven days, plenty long enough for the good doctor to get paid, and leave town. When he wasn’t busy writing his two-volume autobiography “The Life and Extraordinary History of the Chevalier John Taylor”, Taylor would ride into town and deliver a speech on a street corner before performing surgery. On the street corner. In an age before anesthesia with little conception of bacteria the idea was to get in and out, as quickly as possible.

Bach was losing his sight when he underwent the first of two unsuccessful surgeries. After the second, the composer developed a painful post-operative eye infection. Unsurprisingly, a ‘cure’ of laxatives and bleeding did little to relieve the symptoms. Johann Sebastian Bach died of his infection, just a few months later.

Händel was suffering with cataracts when he met the good doctor. Taylor performed a “couching” of the lens on this day in 1752, the insertion of a sharp hook to dislodge the lens and push it down, to emit light. On those few occasions where the procedure succeeded the patient would wear enormous, thick glasses to compensate, for the rest of his life. The other 70 percent including Mr. Händel …went blind.

The man who blinded Händel and all but murdered Bach worked most of his 72 years blinding hundreds of unfortunates before he himself, lost his sight. The English writer Samuel Johnson described the man’s life as “an instance of how far impudence may carry ignorance.” Today the name of John Taylor is all but forgotten, while the works of Bach and Händel live on, after all these centuries.

There’s a reason they call this stuff…Classical.

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