Stolen Charles Darwin Notebooks Returned After 22 Years

One of the items contains the renowned naturalist’s first sketch of the Tree of Life

Page in Darwin's notebook
A page from Darwin's 1837 notebook showing the Tree of Life sketch. Stuart Roberts via University of Cambridge Libraries

Two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks, including one with his iconic sketch of the Tree of Life, were anonymously returned to the Cambridge University Library nearly 22 years after they were stolen.

The books were dropped in a public area of the library wrapped in a pink gift wrap bag and an envelope with a printed note that read: 

Librarian

Happy Easter

X

“I still feel shaky,” librarian Jessica Gardner tells the New York TimesMegan Specia in an interview. “It’s really hard to express how overjoyed I am.”

Darwin wrote down notes, drawings and diagrams in these books in 1837, after he returned from his voyage on the HMS Beagle, per a statement. The Tree of Life sketch shows how he first began exploring the idea of common ancestors in different species. 

“The most important theory in the natural sciences is probably the theory of evolution by natural selection, which was discovered by Charles Darwin,” Jim Secord, president of the Darwin Correspondence Project, says in a video. “And these are the notebooks in which Charles Darwin worked out his theory.”

Librarians examine Darwin notebooks
Jessica Gardner looks on as the notebooks are checked against their page-by-page records held at the university library. University of Cambridge Libraries

Librarians discovered that the books were missing during a routine check in 2001, according to a statement from the university. At first, they thought they had simply been misplaced among the 10 million books, maps and objects within the library’s collections. But over the years, as the notebooks failed to turn up despite numerous searches, staff concluded that they’d been stolen. 

In 2020, Gardner launched a public appeal for any information linked to the notebooks’ disappearance, which garnered news coverage and gained traction on social media. The books were returned 15 months later in good condition, without any signs of damage or significant handling.

Since the notebooks’ disappearance two decades ago, the university has enhanced its security, added CCTV monitoring and created new strong rooms and specialist reading rooms, per the university.

“Today, any such significant missing object would be reported as a potential theft immediately and a widespread search begun,” Gardner says in the statement. “We keep all our precious collections under the tightest security, in dedicated, climate-controlled strong rooms, meeting national standards.”

The investigation remains open, according to police in Cambridgeshire, who say in a statement: “We share the university’s delight that these priceless notebooks are now back where they belong.” 

The notebooks will be on display for free in the university’s upcoming exhibition Darwin in Conversation this summer. 

“It seems just perfect timing to be able to say thank you to everyone and give people a chance to enjoy [the notebooks],” Gardner tells the Washington Post’s Jaclyn Peiser.  “Because that’s what we’re here for at the library: We’re here to study, we’re here for scholarship, and we’re here for the much wider public to feel part of the long, cultural, historical legacy which we look after.”