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Missing Darwin Notebooks Mysteriously Returned After 2 Decades

An anonymous person dropped off the notebooks in a pink gift bag at the Cambridge University Library.

Cambridge University Library's Jessica Gardner looks at the famous Tree of Life sketch in Darwin's notebook.
Stuart Roberts

Scientist Charles Darwin, famous for his theory of evolution by natural selection, was a prolific writer. The Cambridge University Library in the UK contains a huge Darwin archive that included a pair of small notebooks known as the Tree of Life notebooks. They went missing over two decades ago, but an anonymous person returned them to the library in March -- wrapped in plastic and placed inside a pink gift bag.

The notebooks got their nickname from Darwin's 1837 hand-drawn sketch of his Tree of Life concept, which shows a branching tree as a metaphor for his ideas around evolution. The illustration is both simple and revolutionary. "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," said librarian Jessica Gardner in a statement on Tuesday.

Darwin's Tree of Life sketch gave the notebooks their nickname.

Stuart Roberts

The returned books are in good condition and reappeared with a simple printed message: "Librarian. Happy Easter. X."

The possession of the notebooks hit a rough patch after they were removed from a secure room in 2000 so they could be photographed. The photography project was completed, but a routine check in early 2001 found the notebooks weren't where they were supposed to be.   

At first, the librarians thought the notebooks had simply been misplaced in the library's labyrinthine archives, but a series of searches over the years turned up nothing. A new search in 2020 included a deep dive into the 189 boxes in the Darwin Archive. "However, this failed to locate the notebooks, leading to the conclusion, with the help of national experts in cultural heritage theft and recovery, that they had likely been stolen," the library said.  

In 2020, the library issued a public appeal for the return of the notebooks, which seems to have paid off. The Cambridgeshire Police consider the investigation still open and are interested in any tips on who might have been in possession of the notebooks all these years.

To celebrate the notebooks' return, they will go on public display at the library on July 9 in a free exhibition called Darwin in Conversation that will move to the New York Public Library in 2023. The Cambridge University Library has upgraded its security systems and protocols in the decades since the notebooks went missing. We may never know where they spent their time away, but they should be back for good.