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2 missing Charles Darwin notebooks are mysteriously returned more than 20 years later

Two iconic notebooks, which include Darwin's 1837 <em>Tree of Life</em> sketch, were returned to the Cambridge University Library last month.
Two iconic notebooks, which include Darwin's 1837 Tree of Life sketch, were returned to the Cambridge University Library last month.

More than two decades after they were first reported missing, an anonymous person has returned two of Charles Darwin's historic notebooks to the Cambridge University Library.

The iconic notebooks, which include Darwin's 1837 Tree of Life sketch, were returned to the library last month, tucked in a bright gift pink bag and stacked together in plastic wrap, the library said. The notebooks were accompanied by three lines:


Happy Easter


"My sense of relief at the notebooks' safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express," said librarian Dr. Jessica Gardner.

A police investigation is ongoing, according to the library.

Cambridge University Library announced a public appeal to find the notebooks in November 2020. While they had been missing long before the appeal, librarians had assumed they had just been misplaced.

The library plans to put the notebooks on display in July as part of an upcoming exhibit called "Darwin in Conversation." The Tree of Life sketch is said to reveal elements of Darwin's thinking before he fleshed out On the Origin of Species more than two decades later.

"Objects such as these are crucial for our understanding of not only the history of science but the history of humankind," said Stephen Toope, vice chancellor at Cambridge.

The library said the notebooks were first removed in 2000 from the Special Collections Strong Rooms, home to the "rarest and most valuable items." A routine check in January 2001 revealed that the small box containing the notebooks was not returned to its rightful place.

After a number of searches throughout the library over the years, the notebooks were not recovered. Gardner arranged a more intensive search in 2020, led by experts who conducted fingertip examinations. The team searched the entire Darwin Archive, which includes more than 180 boxes.

After these efforts failed, they concluded that the notebooks had been stolen.

Local police are pleased that the notebooks have finally been located.

"We share the university's delight that these priceless notebooks are now back where they belong," a Cambridgeshire police spokesman said. "Our investigation remains open and we are following up some lines of inquiry."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

Rina Torchinsky
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