The notebooks were first thought to be lost in 2001, but the team at Cambridge University Library in England assumed for many years that they were misplaced within the archives. The search for the manuscripts was slow: there’s over 200km of shelving in the archives. It was not until 2020 that an official police investigation and international appeal was launched.
However, they were anonymously returned to the library in March in a pink gift bag with the text:
Currently there is no information on who gave them back to the library, but they were well protected and undamaged upon their return.
The importance of the notebooks
The notebooks were written by key evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin in the 1830s. The “Tree of Life” image is one of the key sketches, and was drawn by Darwin in 1837. The notebooks are kept special small boxes. They manuscripts were used by Darwin as he developed his theory about how humans spread across the world, how they came to be, and how they are classified by descent.
In the summer of 1837, after he came back from his trip around the world on the HMS Beagle, Darwin sketched out his ideas about an evolutionary tree in the notebooks. A few decades later, he published a more detailed tree of life in On the Origin of Species, which is his most famous work. Text continues below video.
Archive security at the library has improved greatly since the disappearance. In 2000, they were removed from secure storage to be photographed, but it took a number of months before anyone noticed that they hadn’t been returned. Nowadays there’s dedicated security teams and systems protecting the special archvies.
Cambridgeshire police are continuing to investigate the theft, but archivists and science enthusiasts around the world are simply pleased that this valuable part of scientific history is once again safe.
“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express.
Along with so many others all across the world, I was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense.”
Dr Jessica Gardner, Cambridge University’s director of library services