Charles Darwin’s notebooks returned 22 years after theft

A plain brown envelope addressed to the University Librarian was included, with the printed message: ‘Librarian/ Happy Easter/ X’.

The two notebooks were used by Darwin on his return from travels aboard HMS Beagle. IMAGE: Cambridge University Library.

More than two decades after first being reported missing, two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks – one of which contains his iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ drawing – have been anonymously returned to Cambridge University Library.

The notebooks, contained within their original blue archive box, were wrapped together in clingfilm, placed inside a bright pink gift bag, and left on the floor outside the Librarian’s office. A plain brown envelope was included, bearing the printed message: ‘Librarian/ Happy Easter/ X’.

They were returned in good condition, with no apparent signs of damage or significant handling.

One notebook contained Charles Darwin’s first sketch of an evolutionary tree. IMAGE: Cambridge University Library.

Known as the Transmutation Notebooks, they were used by Darwin in 1837 on his return from his world travels aboard HMS Beagle to formulate his theories regarding the origin of humans. Within one notebook, Darwin sketched his ideas around an evolutionary tree – a drawing famously known as the ‘Tree of Life’.

The notebooks were originally reported missing in January 2001 when it was realised that they had not been returned to their assigned place within the Library’s Special Collections Strong Rooms, where the most valuable items are stored.

To solve the mystery of their disappearance, the largest search in the Library’s history was organised. Assisted by specialist staff, it included a complete examination of the entire Darwin Archive.

The search, however, proved unsuccessful, and it was concluded that the notebooks had likely been stolen.

Their return comes fifteen months after Dr Jessica Gardner, Cambridge University Librarian, launched a worldwide appeal in partnership with the local police and Interpol for any information concerning their whereabouts.

The notebooks were left outside the Librarian’s office inside a bright pink gift bag. IMAGE: Cambridge University Library.

‘My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express,’ said Dr Gardner. ‘They may be tiny, just the size of postcards, but the notebooks’ impact on the history of science, and their importance to our world-class collections here, cannot be overstated.’

‘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.’

They will be on display as part of the Library’s upcoming exhibition Darwin in Conversation, which opens on 9 July this year.

The police investigation remains open, with renewed appeals for any information about their disappearance and subsequent return.