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Charles Darwin’s Stolen Notebooks Returned After More Than 20 Years

Sara Norris
Photo Credit: 1. The Print Collector / Print Collector / Getty Images 2. Cambridge University Library / Vice / Twitter

Two priceless notebooks belonging to Charles Darwin that had been missing for over 20 years were mysteriously returned to the Cambridge University Library on March 9, 2022. The small, leather-bound books, which include the evolutionist’s famous “tree of life” drawing, are worth millions of dollars. Cambridge officials shared the unexpected good news on April 5.

Dating back to the 1830s, when Darwin returned from his famed trip to the Galapagos Islands, the notebooks are “some of the most remarkable documents in the whole history of science,” said Jim Secord, emeritus professor of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University.

Contents inspired the theory of evolution

Darwin’s sketch of a tree helped inspire his theory of evolution and was a central tenet in his pioneering book, On the Origin of Species. “The theory of natural selection and evolution is probably the single most important theory in the life and earth environmental sciences and these are the notebooks in which that theory was put together,” explained Secord.

The evolutionist’s manuscripts were first discovered to be missing during a routine check in 2001. However, staff thought they had simply been misplaced after being photographed. The library is home to around 10 million books, maps and other materials and it was believed the notebooks were classified incorrectly.

Darwin's book next to a marble bust

A copy of Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species is pictured in front of a life-size stone bust of Darwin at London’s Natural History Museum, June 8, 2006. (Photo Credit: SHAUN CURRY / AFP / Getty Images)

Reported stolen in 2020

It was not until 2020 that the library determined the notebooks had likely been stolen and reported the loss to police, who alerted Interpol. The library also issued an appeal to the public for the books’ safe return at that time.

Eighteen months later, the notebooks were indeed returned, tucked into a pink gift bag and wrapped in plastic. Accompanied by a mysterious typed note reading, “Librarian, Happy Easter X,” they were left outside an office on the fourth floor of the university’s 17-story library building, a public area not monitored by CCTV. There are, however, cameras at the front and back of the building’s exterior, as well as in the vaults and specialist reading rooms, which might provide clues.

Fortunately, the notebooks are in great condition and appear to have been well cared for during their excursion from the library.

Cambridgeshire Police have asked for the public’s cooperation as they look into the matter. “Our investigation remains open and we are following up [on] some lines of inquiry,” they said. “We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us.”

Can now “retake their rightful place” in history

In the meantime, Cambridge University librarian Dr. Jessica Gardner is delighted the materials are safely back at the library.

“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express,” she said. “The notebooks can now retake their rightful place alongside the rest of the Darwin Archive at Cambridge, at the heart of the nation’s cultural and scientific heritage, alongside the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking.”

Exterior view of Cambridge University Library

University library building, Cambridge, designed by architect Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930s. (Photo Credit: Geography Photos / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

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The notebooks will be put on display to the public at the library this summer.