The notebooks, widely regarded to have contained Darwin’s initial thoughts on his groundbreaking work, On the Origin of The Species, went missing more than 20 years ago after they were taken from the library’s Special Collection Strong Rooms in September 2000 to be photographed.
Initially, the two tiny notebooks – each about the size of a postcard – were thought to have been misplaced amongst the library’s collection of over 10 million items. Eventually, in 2020, after years of searching and an in-depth examination of the Darwin archive, it was concluded that the irreplaceable notebooks had been stolen. In partnership with antique book experts, local police and Interpol, the university launched an appeal to get the notebooks back in 2020.
The notebooks date back to 1837, more than 20 years before the publication of Darwin’s seminal work, On the Origin of Species, and are believed to be written during his trip to the Galapagos Islands on board HMS Beagle.
Known in evolutionary biology as the “transmutation notebooks,” they are considered the first point at which Darwin came up with the theory of how species could “transmute,” or adapt and change through generations.
“The theory of natural selection and evolution is probably the single most important theory in the life and earth environmental sciences, and these are the notebooks in which that theory was put together,” says Jim Secord, emeritus professor of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University. “They’re some of the most remarkable documents in the whole history of science.”
The small, leatherbound books, worth millions of pounds, were left outside the office of Dr Ava Gardener, the university librarian, in a public part of the library not covered by CCTV. The two missing notebooks were tightly wrapped in cling film inside their original blue box contained in a bright pink gift bag. An envelope with a short message, “Librarian, Happy Easter. X.” was also found in the gift bag. “I feel joyous,” says Dr Jessica Gardner. “They’re safe, they’re in good condition, they’re home.”
Who took the notebooks, for what purpose and why they were returned after 20 years remains a mystery? CCTV cameras may still provide some clues – while there are no cameras in the area where the notebooks were found, cameras monitor the front and back of the library, the specialist reading rooms and the vaults inside.
The Cambridge Police stated that while they shared in the university’s delight at the return of the books, the investigation into who took them remains open. “We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us,” it said.
The notebooks will return to the library’s Darwin Archives and be displayed to the public in a new exhibition in July, alongside more than 15,000 letters written by Darwin. The exhibit will travel to the New York Public Library in 2023.