Two notebooks that belonged to Charles Darwin were mysteriously returned to Cambridge University Library in a pink gift bag with a cryptic note, more than 20 years after they went missing, and were presumed stolen, from the library’s collection.
The notebooks offer a fascinating window into Darwin’s thoughts as he developed the theory of evolution, one of the most important scientific ideas of all time, and include an iconic “Tree of Life'' sketch that he jotted down in 1837.
The welcome homecoming follows a renewed international effort to track down the missing documents spearheaded by Jessica Gardner, who serves as Cambridge University Librarian, in partnership with the Cambridgeshire Police and Interpol.
“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express,” said Gardner in a statement.
"Everyone at the library was incredibly touched by the response to our appeal and to know that so many others felt the same sense of loss we did only reaffirmed our decision to ask the public for their help,” she continued. "We believe that decision has had a direct bearing on the notebooks being returned and we’d like to take this opportunity to give the public our heartfelt thanks.”
Gardner coordinated a new internal search for the notebooks in 2020, with the hope that they had simply been misplaced somewhere in the library’s collections since they were first reported missing in January 2001. When a thorough search of the Darwin Archives failed to turn up the precious documents, experts concluded they had been stolen and potentially lost for good.
But astonishingly, the notebooks were anonymously returned, in good condition, out of the blue a month ago, on March 9. Somebody showed up that day and placed them on the floor of a public area of the library outside Gardner’s office on the fourth floor of the building. The person returned the books and their original archive box inside a hot pink gift bag. The mysterious package included a brown envelope addressed to the librarian and that bore the enigmatic message:
The Cambridgeshire Police have been conducting an ongoing investigation into the possible theft of the notebooks, and their unexpected return, asking anyone with information about the sequence of events to call 101 and quote reference 35/71468/20, or contact them online.
"We share the university’s delight that these priceless notebooks are now back where they belong,” said a police spokesperson in a statement. “Our investigation remains open and we are following up some lines of inquiry. We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us.”
Before their miraculous reappearance, the books were last seen in autumn of 2000 when they were removed from the library’s Special Collections Strong Rooms for a photoshoot. A routine check a few months later revealed that the books had not been put back in their allotted location. Gardner said that the library has introduced significant security improvements in the decades since the books went missing, to prevent the risk of theft or accidental loss in the future.
Darwin, who attended Cambridge University and had lifelong affiliations with the institution, used these notebooks to flesh out his revolutionary theory of evolution. Their pages are filled with his off-the-cuff observations about the origin of species through the process of natural selection, a scientific framework that explains the incredible variety of life on Earth and the harsh realities of extinction, which are concepts that have come to underpin all modern life sciences.
Now that the notebooks are back at the library, Gardner and her colleagues are eager to share them with the public in an exhibition this summer.
"They may be tiny, just the size of postcards, but the notebooks’ impact on the history of science, and their importance to our world-class collections here, cannot be overstated," Gardner said.