The Oldest SPA in Lithuania

In the early 19th century, Teodor Narbutt (1784–1864), a Lithuanian historian and cultural activist, became unwell to the point that he could barely even walk. But one day the patient learned about the healing springs in Druskininkai and decided to try them. After just two visits Narbutt found himself almost entirely healthy and started walking again. So, when did Druskininkai become a health resort?

Surutis family from Druskininkai

To find the answer, one should dig into the second half of the 18th century because in 1772, in the wake of the first partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, exports of Polish salt to Lithuania came to an end which prompted the country to look for its own resources. Professors working for the Department of Natural History of the Supreme School in Vilnius, as the former university had been renamed, led by Stanisław Bonifacy Jundziłł examined the prospects of local mining and began a search for salt deposits. In addition to that, king Stanisław August Poniatowski issued a decree in 1788 obliging people to report on salt deposits and salty springs throughout the country. Therefore, the idea spread countrywide. 

Apparently, there was no coincidence that the healing springs in Druskininkai were “discovered” at that time even though the springs themselves and their effects on health had been known earlier in the 18th century. It is likely that the village of Druskininkai had a health centre known and used by locals, the one that Narbutt wrote about, described how it looked like, and the healing process there: “The owner of the house I entered had a family name Surutis, […] relying on the knowledge gathered from the people who know the matter and his personal practice with patients, he became my adviser and doctor. Every morning he would bring me a clay jar of mineral water which I had to drink, and he used another spring for baths. He would heat water in a kettle in the open air, right beside the road leading to the village, on the side where the springs were.”

At the time, five families of peasants lived there and the Surutis family mentioned by Narbutt was in the business of healing. After the accounts on the healing springs in Druskininkai had reached the king, he wanted to declare Druskininkai a health resort. An entry in his diary reads: “On the 20th of June 1794 we visited the locality of Druskininkai famous for the healing waters and we realised a need to sign a decree to declare it a healing area with the Committee and a Doctor to be financed from the royal coffers.”

It was not then, however, that Druskininkai became a health resort. In addition to that, the timing of the document looks unusual as 1794 was the year of the uprising led by Tadeusz Kościuszko with aberrant conditions prevailing throughout the country. Or perhaps the document was signed and published but had no legal power? This way or another, the idea waned because the third partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took place in 1795.

Special waters in a test tube

As the tumultuous times passed by, Druskininkai came back into a spotlight. Karl Fromhold von Schönvogel, a German nobleman born in the Duchy of Courland, in modern Latvia, was in charge of the analysis of the healing waters these at the time. He studied in Frankfurt before receiving his diploma as a physician and then moved to work in Poland and Russia.

It is from Schönvogel’s report of 1796 to Nikolai Repnin, the general governor of Lithuania at the time, that we know the names of the experienced specialists who studied the springs in Druskininkai: Schönvogel himself; Schmidtt, the pharmacist in the city of Grodno; Melin, the pharmacist of the Russian army.

After the chemical testing they concluded: “Waters in these two springs […] are salty and clear and they smell of sulphur. […] The water from these two springs influence faeces and urine. The consequences of the first [spring] are however milder, it has a slow and tenuous effect causing neither diarrhoea nor any other inconvenience; several people tried it, they arrived in curiosity and drank the water in small quantities. […] The different parts of minerals that the water is saturated with are particularly beneficial [against intestine] induration, edematic scurvy-caused tumefactions and other acute and chronic diseases of that kind caused by viscous, bitterly slimy and bilious liquids that form in the internals and other nervous and noble members. The persons who consume water from these springs, starts from the first [spring] which purifies, excretes and liquefies quite well, and finish with the second [spring] which due to its high bitterness and the particles of iron and sulphur that saturate the water abundantly is very beneficial to the nerves in the first place.”

Therefore, the healing effects of the springs in Druskininkai were wide known in the late 18th century. Shortly, these waters earned Druskininkai the status of the resort town which, in turn, made Druskininkai famous throughout the Russian empire.

Jonas Drungilas