Two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks mysteriously vanished from Cambridge University 22 years ago. They have reappeared, in a pink gift bag, but nobody on campus or in the police force has a clue where they went.
Charles Robert Darwin was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, who changed the shape of evolutionary biology after suggesting all species of life on Earth had descended from common ancestors. Fifteen months ago, BBC announced that two leather-bound books estimated be worth millions of dollars or euros had vanished from the Cambridge University.
With a worldwide appeal to find them amounting to nothing, now Darwin’s notebooks have “just shown up.”
A page from one of Darwin’s notebooks, which was one of two notebooks stolen in 2000-2001 from the Cambridge University Library, that contains Darwin’s first evolutionary tree sketches from 1837. (Cambridge University Library )
Darwin’s Notebooks: The Case Of The Pink Gift Bag
Sherlock would have loved this one. “Joyous” is how Cambridge University Library librarian Dr Jessica Gardner she felt when discovering the two lost books , according to the BBC. The package was discovered on a doorstep in a public part of the prestigious university library outside Dr Gardner’s office on the 9th of March 2022. Who took and then returned the two postcard-sized notebooks in a new blue box? Is the bright pink gift bag a clue?
Does the fact that no CCTV is used in this part of the building suggest an inside job? And perhaps most revealing was the typewritten message: “ Librarian, Happy Easter X.”
Dr Gardner said when she realized what was inside the bag she began “shaking.” Then, an “agonizing” delay of five long days was endured until the police finally confirmed the two notebooks were genuine and contained the musings of one of the most famous scientists in history, Charles Darwin .
The two Darwin notebooks were anonymously returned to where they were taken from in a box in a pink gift bag, along with an envelope signed, “Librarian Happy Easter X.” ( Cambridge University Library )
The Returned Darwin’s Notebooks Are “Bibles” of Evolution
Darwin’s notepads, just mysteriously returned after 21-22 years, date back to the late 1830s. Darwin had just explored the Galapagos Islands and on one page the naturalist sketched his first ever spindly evolutionary tree. This image is believed to have inspired his later theory of evolution, which two decades later would become a central theory of his On the Origin of Species .
Professor Jim Secord is an emeritus professor of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University. The scientist says Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution “is probably the single most important theory in the life and earth environmental sciences.” And it was the contents of these two notebooks that stitched his now fundamental theory together. Thus, Secord concluded that the books are some of the most “remarkable documents in the whole history of science .”
In mid-July 1837 Darwin started his “B” notebook on Transmutation of Species, and on page 36 wrote “I think” above his first evolutionary tree. (Charles Darwin / Public domain )
A Criminal Of A Caring Nature
Darwin’s notebooks, the stolen ones, were last seen in November 2000 after “an internal request” to remove them from the library’s special collections strongroom to be photographed. Two months later they were found to be missing and the librarians assumed they had been put back in the wrong place and lost among the “10 million books, maps and manuscripts” that the library houses. In 2020, Dr Gardner concluded they had probably been stolen and she informed the police and Interpol.
At first, the police and museologists suspected that the returned books may have been forgeries. However, Prof Secord concluded that they were authentic. Darwin used different types of ink in the notebooks and the “Tree of Life” page has both brown and grey ink. The professor said this would have been “difficult to forge convincingly.”
The notebooks, added Dr Gardiner, have bits of copper coming off where the hinges are located. This evidence of ageing convinced the researchers at the university library that the books were indeed genuine. What’s more, whoever took them looked after them well in a dry stable environment.
The notebooks are today being stored in vault at the library before being publicly displayed in July as part of a free exhibition titled Darwin in Conversation.
For now, who took the notebooks, where they were kept, and who returned them all remain unanswered questions. But somewhere out there is a cool character with some serious inside connections. After all, it was an “internal” request to inspect the books that led to their vanishing. Surely, the criminals name must appear somewhere on those chain of release forms from November 2020?
Top image: Darwin’s notebooks, stolen in 2000-2001, on top of their original box, with the box from “X” at the top. Source: Cambridge University Library
By Ashley Cowie