‘Stolen’ Charles Darwin notebooks left on library floor in pink gift bag


Cambridge University librarian Dr Jessica Gardner was delighted to find the books in safe hands

Two “stolen” notebooks written by Charles Darwin have been mysteriously returned to Cambridge University, 22 years after they were last visited.

The small leather-bound books are worth several million pounds and include the scientist’s “tree of life” sketch.

Their return comes 15 months after the BBC first revealed they were missing and the library launched a global appeal to find them.

“I feel joyful,” says university librarian Dr. Jessica Gardner.

The pink gift bag, envelope and box in which the notebooks were returned

The pink gift bag, envelope and box in which the notebooks were returned

She smiled widely as she announced the news. In fact, she can’t help smiling. “They are safe, they are in good condition, they are at home.”

But whoever made the two postcard-sized notepads is a real whodunnit. They were left anonymously in a bright pink gift bag containing the original blue box the notebooks were kept in and a plain brown envelope.

A short message was printed on it: “Librarian, Happy Easter X”.

Inside were the two notebooks, tightly wrapped in cling film. The package had been left on the floor, in a public part of the library without video surveillance, in front of Dr. Gardner’s office.

“I was shaking,” Dr. Gardner says of his reaction to seeing the bag and its contents for the first time on March 9. “But I was also careful because until we can unbox them, you can’t be 100% sure.”

An agonizing five-day delay elapsed between finding the package and allowing police to open the cling film, examine the notebooks and confirm they were genuine.

Charles Darwin notebooks wrapped in cling film being handled by someone wearing blue rubber gloves

The books were only unpacked five days after being returned

“There were tears,” Dr. Gardner said sheepishly. “And I think there always will be, because we’re not over the emotional roller coaster. It means so much to us to have these homes.”

She admits that she had feared the notebooks would not be returned during her lifetime. “I thought it might take years. My sense of relief at the safe return of the notebooks is deep and almost impossible to adequately express.

“I was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense.”

Charles Darwin notebook open to page showing his tree of life sketch

The sketch of the tree of life played a central role in the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution

The notebooks date from the late 1830s after Darwin returned from the Galapagos Islands. On one page he drew a spindly sketch of a tree, which helped inspire his theory of evolution and more than 20 years later would become a central theory in his groundbreaking work on the origin of species.

“The theory of natural selection and evolution is probably the most important theory in the environmental sciences of life and earth and these are the notebooks in which this theory has been collected,” says Jim Secord , Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge. University.

“These are some of the most remarkable documents in the entire history of science.”

The manuscripts were last seen in November 2000 after “an internal request” to remove them from the library’s Special Collections vault for photographing.

It was not until a routine check two months later that they were found missing. Initially, librarians thought they had been put back in the wrong place in the vast university library, which contains more than 10 million books, maps and manuscripts.

But despite various searches, the notebooks never arrived, and in 2020 Dr. Gardner concluded that they were likely stolen. She called the police and informed Interpol.

The cover of one of Charles Darwin's notebooks

The notebooks will be exhibited to the public in July

Professor Secord was one of many scholars and experts who examined the returned manuscripts and concluded that they were genuine. He walked me through the “evidence” they were looking for.

“Darwin uses different types of ink in the notebooks. For example, on the famous page of the tree of life, there is both brown ink and gray ink. These kinds of changes are quite difficult to forge from convincing way.

“You can see the tiny bits of copper sticking out where the hinges are. The paper type is the right paper type.

“These are the tiny tell-tale signs that the entire team of researchers at the university library can use to tell they are genuine.”

The notebooks, adds Dr. Gardner, are “in remarkably good condition”. She confirms: “Every page that should be there is there.”

Charles Darwin's work on the theory of evolution by natural selection changed the way we think about the natural world

Charles Darwin’s work on the theory of evolution by natural selection changed the way we think about the natural world

She says: “I wonder where they were. They haven’t been handled much, they’ve clearly been cared for with care wherever they are.

“I think what we can probably assume is that they were dry, they weren’t subjected to moisture. So what can we speculate, other than whoever had them, had them. put in a safe place?”

The notebooks are now kept in a secure vault at the library, although they will be on public display in July as part of a free exhibition called Darwin in Conversation.

But so many intriguing questions remain. Who took the notebooks? And who returned them?

Security cameras can possibly provide clues. Although there is no CCTV in place on the landing where the gift bag was left last month, cameras outside the building monitor the front and back of the library as well as the rooms specialized reading rooms and the vaults inside.

“We’ve gone beyond the CCTV that we have made available to the police,” says Dr Gardner. “That’s a question for their live survey.”

In the meantime, Cambridgeshire Police said: “Our investigation remains open and we are following certain investigative leads. We are also renewing our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us.”

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