Charles Darwin’s ‘Tree of Life’ notebooks, missing for two decades, have mysteriously returned – along with a message for the librarian

Two of naturalist Charles Darwin’s notebooks that have been reported stolen from Cambridge University Library were returned, two decades after they disappeared. The university said on Tuesday that the manuscripts were left at the library in a pink gift bag, along with a note wishing the librarian a happy Easter.

The notebooks, which include the 19th century scientist’s famous 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch, disappeared in 2001 after being removed for photographing, although at the time staff believed they might have been misplaced . After searches of the library’s collection of 10 million books, maps and manuscripts failed to find them, they were reported stolen to police in October 2020.

Darwin's notebooks
In this photo provided by the University of Cambridge Library on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, Dr Jessica Gardner looks at the ‘Tree of Life’ sketch in one of naturalist Charles Darwin’s notebooks which were recently returned after going missing in 2001, in Cambridge, England.

Stuart Roberts/AP


The university’s director of library services, Jessica Gardner, had launched a global appeal for information. Local detectives informed the global police organization Interpol and launched an international hunt for the notebooks, valued at millions of dollars.

On March 9, the books reappeared, left in a public area of ​​the building, outside the librarian’s office, which is not covered by security cameras. Both notebooks were wrapped in cling film inside their archival box. The accompanying note read: “Librarian Happy Easter X.”

The books are in “good condition, with no obvious signs of significant handling or damage sustained in the years since their disappearance,” the university said.

Darwin filled the notebooks with ideas soon after returning from his voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, developing ideas that would flourish in his landmark work on evolution, “On the Origin of Species.”

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Charles Darwin’s ‘Tree of Life’ sketch can be seen on a page of ‘Notebook B’, one of Darwin’s treasure troves of documents that had been stored in the University of Cambridge Library until he disappeared in 2001.

Cambridge University Digital Library


Gardner said his sense of relief at the reappearance of the books was “profound and almost impossible to adequately express”.

“The notebooks can now take their rightful place alongside the rest of the Darwin Archive in Cambridge, at the heart of the nation’s cultural and scientific heritage, alongside the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking,” he said. she declared. “

“They may be tiny, just the size of postcards, but the impact of the notebooks on the history of science and their importance to our world-class collections here cannot be overstated.”

The notebooks are set to go on public display from July as part of a Darwin exhibit at the library.

Cambridgeshire Police said their investigation was continuing, “and we are following certain investigative leads”.

“We also renew our call for anyone with information about the case to contact us,” the force said.


Return of Darwin’s Missing Notebooks by
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