After being missing for more than 20 years, two notebooks belonging to Charles Darwin mysteriously reappeared several weeks ago at the Cambridge University Library.
The notebooks – valued in the millions – had been housed at the university north of London but were unaccounted for in 2001 and initially considered misplaced. But in 2020, the library issued a public appeal for any information about the two small notebooks, one of which contains Darwin’s 1837 “Tree of Life” sketch.
The notebooks had been removed from safekeeping in the library’s special collections storage for onsite photography in September 2000. But during a routine check in January 2001, the staff discovered the notebooks had not been returned to their proper place, the library says.
The two notebooks – each about the size of a paperback book – were returned to the library March 9, 2022, in good condition, wrapped in plastic film, in their original archive box within a pink gift bag with the message: “Librarian, Happy Easter, X. “
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“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, can not be overstated,” Cambridge University librarian Jessica Gardner said in a statement on the library’s website.
Darwin, who lived south of London, made notes in the books about his theories “in terms of geographical distribution, the origin of humans and classification by descent,” the library said. The notes were made in 1837 after the scientist had returned from his five-year trip around the world on the HMS Beagle. Two decades later, in 1859, Darwin would publish “On the Origin of Species,” which detailed his theories of evolution and natural selection.
“The most important theory in the natural sciences is probably the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, which was discovered by Charles Darwin, and these are the notebooks in which Charles Darwin worked out his theory,” said Jim Secord, a historian and director of the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge, in a video on the university’s YouTube page.
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Darwin had the notebooks with him as he “walked around in London, went to meetings, talked to his father, talked to his barber, talked about a whole range of issues with many, many different people,” Secord said.
The pink gift bag containing the notebooks was left on the floor outside the librarian’s office. Cambridgeshire Police continue to investigate the disappearance and return of the notebooks, they said in a statement.
The library had digitized the notebooks; they can be viewed on the Cambridge Digital Library website (Notebook B and Notebook C).
Both will also be part of a new Darwin in Conversation exhibit at the library in July, which will travel to the New York Public Library in 2023.
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.