Darwin’s Missing Tree of Life Notebooks Mysteriously Returned After 20 Years

Priceless notebooks belonging to Charles Darwin, one containing his famous ‘tree of life’ sketch outlining his theory of natural selection, have been mysteriously returned to the University of Cambridge more than 20 years after they went missing.

The university has launched an appeal to recover the notebooks in 2020, in partnership with antiquarian book experts, local police and Interpol, the international police agency.

And to the astonishment of the university library staff, on March 9, the notebooks were returned.

Wrapped in plastic and left in a bright pink gift bag, with no obvious signs of damage, they were left outside the librarian’s office on the fourth floor of the 17-story grand library building, the university said in a statement. Tuesday.

A page from Darwin’s 1837 notebook showing the sketch of the Tree of Life.Stuart Roberts / Cambridge University Library

There was no idea who returned the books, just a message inside a brown envelope that read: ‘Librarian, Happy Easter X’ ‘My sense of relief at the safe return of the notebooks runs deep and nearly impossible to adequately express,” Cambridge University Librarian Jessica Gardner said.

“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, wrapped together in plastic, were left on the floor outside the librarian's desk.
The notebooks, wrapped together in plastic, were left on the floor outside the librarian’s desk. Stuart Roberts / Cambridge University Library

The famous sketch of the “tree of life” dates from the summer of 1837 when Darwin had just returned from his voyage aboard HMS Beagle, more than 20 years before “On the Origin of Species” was published.

Notebooks are known in evolutionary biology as “transmutation notebooks” because they are considered the first point at which Darwin proposed the theory of how species could “transmute”, or adapt and change over time. generations.

“Such objects are crucial to our understanding not only of the history of science but also of the history of mankind,” said Stephen J. Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

The anonymous donor left the notebooks in a plain brown envelope with this message printed.
The anonymous donor left the notebooks in a plain brown envelope with this message printed.Stuart Roberts / Cambridge University Library

However, the police investigation into who took the books continues. They were originally taken from the library’s special collection vaults in September 2000 for photography. A street check carried out in January 2001 revealed that two notebooks – the size of a paperback book – had not been returned.

The university said former librarians believed the missing books had just been misplaced – with around 10 million items, it seemed possible. But years of searching turned up nothing, and an extensive search of Darwin’s archives in 2020 concluded they were likely stolen.

Determined not to let thieves strike again, the university has built new high-security vaults and installed a series of security measures since 2001.

“These include CCTV, card and PIN access to secure areas, a dedicated on-site security team and other thorough reviews of all our upcoming security protocols – to ensure that we minimize any future risk to the extent humanly possible,” Garner said.

Both books were returned anonymously to the library on March 9, 2022.
Both books were returned anonymously to the library on March 9, 2022.Stuart Roberts / Cambridge University Library

Cambridgeshire Police said in a statement they shared the university’s joy at the return of the books, but added that their investigation into who took them remained open.

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

The notebooks will now return to the library’s Darwin Archive and take center stage in a new public exhibition in July, which will also feature more than 15,000 letters written by Darwin. The exhibition will then be presented at the New York Public Library in 2023.

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