Two notebooks filled with Charles Darwin’s writings and drawings that were believed to have been stolen from Cambridge University Library more than 20 years ago have been anonymously returned in a pink gift bag, with a typed note wishing a Happy Easter.
The precious items – in which the famous scientist laid out his theory of evolution about the origin of life – were found to be missing in 2001, but at the time staff believed they may have been mis-shelved.
They carried out extensive searches in the library – which is home to around 10 million books, maps, manuscripts and other items – but in October 2020 they were reported as stolen to Cambridgeshire Police.
The force launched an investigation and notified Interpol, with the university making a worldwide appeal for information so that the notebooks, which are worth millions of pounds, could be returned.
Almost a year-and-a-half later, the notebooks – one of which contains Darwin’s famous 1837 Tree of Life sketch – have been anonymously returned.
They were left on the floor of a public area of the library outside librarian Dr Jessica Gardner’s office, on the fourth floor of the 17-storey building, on March 9. The area is not covered by CCTV.
The manuscripts, said to be in good condition and with no obvious signs of significant handling or damage sustained in the years since their disappearance, were returned in a pink gift bag.
The two notebooks were wrapped together with clingfilm inside their archive box. A plain brown envelope with them had the printed message ‘Librarian/ Happy Easter/ X’.
Speaking of her delight at the return of the notebooks, Dr Gardner told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that she was ‘shaking’ when she saw them. She added: ‘There have been tears and I think there still will be’.
Two notebooks filled with Charles Darwin’s writings and drawings that were stolen from Cambridge University Library more than 20 years ago have been anonymously returned in a pink gift bag, with a typed note wishing a Happy Easter. Above: Darwin’s Tree of Life sketch, which explored the relationship between species
The precious items, in which the famous scientist aid out his theory of evolution, were found to be missing in 2001, but at the time staff believed they may have been mis-shelved. Above: The previously missing notebooks
Eminent 19th Century scientist Charles Darwin made jottings in the notebooks, which had not been seen in two decades
The police investigation around the notebooks’ disappearance and subsequent return is ongoing.
Dr Gardner, who became director of library services in 2017 and who reported the notebooks as stolen to police, described her joy at their return as ‘immense’.
‘My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express,’ she said.
‘I, along with so many others, all across the world, was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense.
‘The sole aim of our public appeal was to have the manuscripts safely returned to our safekeeping and I am delighted to have had such a successful outcome in such a relatively short space of time.
‘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.’
Dr Gardner added to the BBC that the notebooks were ‘tightly wrapped’ in cling film inside the pink parcel.
‘We could glimpse through the clingfilm notebook B, and notebook C, which is the labels of what we have been looking for for such a long time,’ she said.
She added that she and her team are ‘not over the emotional rollercoaster’.
While there is no CCTV of the area where the manuscripts were returned, Dr Gardner said entrances and exits to the building are covered, as are targeted areas such as strong rooms and specialist reading rooms.
She said available footage has been handed to police, adding: ‘It really is a mystery.
‘We don’t know how and we don’t know who.’
The notebooks had been removed from storage to be photographed at the library’s photographic unit, where the work was recorded as completed in November 2000.
During a subsequent routine check in January 2001, it was found that the small blue box containing the notebooks had not been returned to its proper place.
Dr Gardner said the library building has ‘transformed significantly’ since then, with card-and-pin access to secure areas, a dedicated onsite security team, high security strong rooms and additional CCTV.
She added there will be ‘further root-and-branch reviews of all our security protocols to come – to make sure we minimise any future risk as far as humanly possible’.
Emeritus Professor Jim Secord, the director of Cambridge University’s Darwin Correspondence Project, said the notebooks are ‘probably the most important manuscripts in the natural sciences’.
He told BBC Radio 4: ‘The theory of natural selection and evolution is probably the single most important theory in the life and earth and environmental sciences and these are the notebooks in which that theory was put together.’
The notebooks were left on the floor of a public area of the library outside librarian Dr Jessica Gardner’s office, on the fourth floor of the 17-storey building, on March 9. The area is not covered by CCTV
Speaking of her delight at the return of the notebooks, Dr Gardner (pictured) told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that she was ‘shaking’ when she saw them. She added: ‘There have been tears and I think there still will be’
Dr Gardner added to the BBC that the notebooks were ‘tightly wrapped’ in cling film inside the pink parcel. Above: The notebooks in the clingfilm
Addressing the question of how the Cambridge experts knew the notebooks were genuine, he highlighted how Darwin used different colours of ink and said the notebooks’ distinctive features, which proved their authenticity, were clear.
‘Darwin uses different types of ink in the notebooks. For example on the famous tree of life page there is both a brown ink and also a later grey ink. And those kind of issues are quite difficult to forge convincingly at all,’ he said.
‘There is the type of paper that they are actually using. Where the clasp is on the notebooks you can see little bits of copper where it has been eroded away.
‘These are the tiny tell tale signs that the whole team of researchers at the university library can use to tell that they are genuine.’
Last November, Dr Gardner had fronted a worldwide appeal for information about the notebooks when her team realised they must have been stolen.
The notebooks had last been removed from Cambridge library’s Special Collections strong room in September 2000, so that they could be photographed as part of a media request.
Then, in January 2001, staff discovered that the notebooks were not where they should be. At the time that they had been photographed, there was building work going on in the library.
It meant that the notebooks had to be taken to a temporary photography unit, rather than pictures being taken on site.
Dr. Gardner said that the library no longer has records as to which media outlet made the photography request – and would not comment on who might have been the last person to see the notebooks.
The Library Director at the time the books went missing was Peter Fox, who retired in 2009.
Darwin was one of the most eminent scientists of his era.
He carried out extensive research into different species, including on his famous trip to the Galapagos Islands on his ship the Beagle in 1835.
It was after he returned home from the trip that he began to shape his theory of evolution.
He believed that species were all from common ancestors.
He refrained from publishing his theories until he started corresponding with fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who had carried out his own investigations and developed his own theory on evolution.
Many believe Wallace may have even coined the phrase ‘origin of species’ which became the title of Darwin’s theory.
Both Wallace and Darwin shared authorship of the scientific article that first proposed the theory of natural selection in 1858, a year before Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species came out and secured a place in history.
Wallace’s eight years of observation led him to conclude that life on earth changed gradually over time from generation to generation.
He also went a step further and argued that a species would only evolve into another species if it was struggling for existence.
Wallace published his findings in 1858 in an essay written on the island of Ternate in Indonesia.
It was Wallace’s essay that inspired Darwin to publish On the Origin of Species the following year.
He had been concerned about a backlash to his ideas so had initially refrained from making them public.
Wallace is now regarded as the ‘forgotten father’ of evolution as although the two men published their findings around the same time and both found fame for their ideas, it is Darwin who is widely credited with the theory of evolution.
The official title of Darwin’s book is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
It explains the scientist’s theory of evolution and outlined how species were of common descent and evolved over time through the process of natural selection.
Despite its publication a century and a half ago, Darwin’s ‘On The Origin Of Species’ still fuels clashes between scientists convinced of its truth and some religious critics who reject its central theory.
It has previously been voted the most influential academic book ever written.
Researchers know the notebooks are genuine because of myriad distinguishing features, such as the different types of ink used by Darwin. Above: The two notebooks next to a colour chart
While there is no CCTV of the area where the manuscripts were returned, Dr Gardner said entrances and exits to the building are covered, as are targeted areas such as strong rooms and specialist reading rooms
The previous notebooks are seen being unwrapped by Cambridge University staff. The police investigation around the notebooks’ disappearance and subsequent return is ongoing
Professor Stephen J Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said he was ‘incredibly glad to hear of the notebooks’ safe return to their rightful home’.
‘Objects such as these are crucial for our understanding of not only the history of science but the history of humankind,’ he said.
The notebooks are to go on public display from July, as part of the library’s Darwin In Conversation exhibition.
A Cambridgeshire Police spokesman said: ‘Our investigation remains open and we are following up some lines of inquiry.
‘We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us.’
Anyone with information is asked to call police on 101 and quote reference 35/71468/20 or contact the force online at www.cambs.police.uk/contact/af/contact-us/.