Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Imagine That!

Can A Singer Make a Scientific Discovery? The Case of Manuel García

Multiple passions led the singer Manuel García to scientific discovery.

Posted Sep 30, 2010

Manuel Garcia

Manuel Garcia

We blog a lot about the fact that creative people are often polymaths, talented at many things. The 19th century singer Manuel García illustrates how such multiple talents can result in surprising and unexpected discoveries - even in science!

Imagine the pressure of being born into a family that included three of the most famous singers of the 19th century. The strain on young Manuel García must have been immense. His mother, Joaquina Sitchès, sang in an opera company with his father, Manuel del Populo Vincent García, who was Rossini's favorite tenor. The elder García was also the foremost voice teacher in Europe. He trained two of his daughters, who both became world renowned: María Felicia (who is remembered as "La Malibran") and Pauline Ferdinande Viardot-García. The young García was also groomed to become a professional singer, but had neither the desire nor the talent to compete with the rest of his family. So in 1830, he ran away from home and joined the French army as a medical orderly.

Medicine captured young García's imagination. He hung around the surgical wards and the pathologist's dissection tables. He was particularly interested in anything to do with the larynx, or what many people call the "voice box." Convinced that his father's teaching methods had ruined his voice, García believed that the more he understood about the vocal chords, the more he would understand how to sing without pain and frustration.

When García's family lured him back home a year or so later, convincing him to join their school as a voice teacher, his fascination with the anatomy and physiology of the larynx persisted. He began experimenting with animal windpipes collected from butcher shops and slaughter houses. He brought his specimens home to perform anatomical dissections and enlisted his now quite famous sister Pauline Viardot in helping with experiments as well. Viardot would insert a bellows into the lower end of the trachea while García manipulated the larynx in order to determine how different types of sounds were generated. As Viardot later commented, "You would have imagined that these [experiments] would have disgusted me. But it was not so. He would give me a pair of bellows, which I would insert in these windpipes, one after the other, and blow hard. Heavens! What extraordinary sounds they used to emit" (Mackinlay, 100). García used the results of his studies to experiment with his own voice and then began applying what he was learning from these experiments to his teaching.

About this time, the elder García died, leaving his world-famous music school in the hands of his rebellious son. Surprisingly, García the younger not only kept up the reputation of the school, but actually increased its importance by training a second generation of singers who went on to dominate operatic singing around the world.

But this success alone was not enough for García. While dissecting his animal windpipes, he had conceived a passion to view his own vocal chords as he was singing and to test out his teaching methods while actually practicing them. The task seemed impossible. Physicians had been trying for nearly a century to view the larynx of a living patient without success. Sticking a tube large enough to shine a light down someone's throat would cause them to gag or vomit. Pushing a mirror to the back of the throat didn't work either, because the larynx is a few inches down the trachea, hiding in the dark. One needed to shine a light down the throat, too, which necessitated the use of a tongue depressor. Sticking a mirror and a tongue depressor into a patient's throat wasn't any better than forcing a tube into it. Many physicians considered the problem insoluble.

Garcia viewing his own larynx

Garcia viewing his own larynx

García was not to be put off. One day, in September of 1854, he was walking along the Palais Royale in Paris when a flash of sunlight off a window inspired the idea of using sunlight directed off a mirror to illuminate the back of the throat. There would be enough reflected light to illuminate the larynx as well. It immediately struck García that he would require a second mirror placed at the back of the throat in such a position as to reflect the image of the vocal cords back out of his mouth. Obtaining a hand-held mirror to reflect sunlight into mouth was easy, but where was he to obtain a very small mirror placed at the correct angle at the end of a handle long enough to reach the back of his throat? As a result of his earlier anatomical experimentation, García knew where to look for this second mirror, and serendipity smiled a second time: "I went straight to Charriere, the [Parisian] surgical instrument maker, and asking if he happened to possess a small mirror with a long handle, was informed that he had a little dentist's mirror which had been one of the failures of the London Exhibition in I85I. I bought it for 6 francs" (Kernan, 616).

The rest is medical history, as García became the first person to ever see live vocal chords as they were making sound. In his own words, "I placed against the uvula the little mirror which I had heated in warm water and carefully dried, then flashing upon its surface with a hand mirror a ray of sunlight, I saw at once to my great joy, the glottis open before me, and so fully exposed that I could perceive a portion of the trachea. When my excitement had subsided, I began to examine what was passing before my eyes. The glottis silently opening and shutting and moving in action and phonation filled me with wonder and admiration...." (Kernan, 616).

It sounds so simple (if you'll excuse the pun) that you might wonder why medical experts had found it impossible to do what García so quickly achieved. The answer lies in the fact that he was a singer. Dr. John D. Kernan notes that García had the ability, because he was a professional singer, "to endure the mirror in his throat for a prolonged period... It is an ability which singers acquire. All otolaryngologists know that larynges of singers are easy to examine even without local anesthesia.... When García introduced the mirror into his throat he automatically assumed the singing position -- his throat relaxed and wide open, his tongue flat, and his epiglottis high after a deep breath. Only a singer could do that. That is what laryngologists teach their patients to do" (Kernan, 617). This was what García did automatically and with revolutionary effect.

Garcia observing the voice box

Garcia observing the voice box

Moreover, having observed in action his own voice box and that of his students, he went on to refine his teaching methods and write extensively on how the vocal chords produce different sounds. His observations and theories still inform both the teaching of singing and the scientific study of human sound production. Interestingly enough, García did not appreciate the medical implications of his invention. Nevertheless his "laryngoscope," as it came to be known, was soon picked up by medical experts who, for the first time, were able to actually look down the trachea to diagnose polyps on the vocal chords or cancers of the throat. Surgeon no longer operated blind on these and other throat conditions. The invention of anesthetics shortly thereafter guaranteed that any and all patients could endure laryngoscopy, and an entire medical profession was invented. It is estimated that five percent of us will benefit from this procedure over the course of our life times.

And all because a singer succeeded in satisfying his passion to see his own voice.

© Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein 2010


Kernan JD. 1956. Manuel García: The artist and scientist. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 32 (8): 612-619.

Mackinlay MS. 1976. García: The Centenarian and His Time (New York: Da Capo Press). Reprint of the 1908 ed. published by W. Blackwood, Edinburgh.

For more on Garcia, see Henry T. Finck, 1909, How Garcia Helped Singers.

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