Darwin’s 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch shows early signs of his thinking around evolutionStuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library

Two notebooks belonging to Charles Darwin have been returned to the University Library 20 years after they were found missing, it was announced this morning (05/04).

The notebooks, one of which contains Darwin’s 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch, were anonymously returned to the UL on March 9, following the 15-month worldwide Darwin Appeal launched by the University Librarian to try and track them down.

They were left outside the Librarian’s office in a bright pink gift bag, inside a brown envelope reading the printed message: “Librarian/Happy Easter/X”. They were wrapped in cling film and stored in their original archive box, and showed no signs of significant damage.

‘Happy Easter’: The notebooks were left in a pink gift bag in a public area of the library, showing no signs of significant damageStuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library

The notebooks were first listed missing in January 2001, after being removed from the Special Collections Strong Rooms in September 2000 in order for photography to take place.

It was assumed that the notebooks had simply been misplaced in the vast archives of the Library, but despite several searches in the years since their disappearance, they were never found.

A final extensive but ultimately fruitless search of the Library in 2020 led to the conclusion that they had been stolen, prompting the launch of a worldwide appeal for information in November 2020.

The librarian, Dr Jessica Gardner, spoke of a “profound” sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return, saying that she was “heartbroken to learn of their loss” and that her “joy at their return is immense”.

On the impact of the worldwide Darwin Appeal, Gardner said: “The sole aim of our public appeal was to have the manuscripts returned to our safekeeping and I am delighted to have had such a successful outcome in such a relatively short space of time.”

She said that the UL team were “incredibly touched” by the public’s response to the appeal, and that they believed it had “a direct bearing on the notebooks being returned”, saying they would like to give the public their “heartfelt thanks”.

Following their safe return, the notebooks will now go on public display as part of the UL’s Darwin in Conversation exhibition, which opens on July 9.

Professor Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor, said he is “incredibly glad to hear of the notebooks’ safe return”, calling them “crucial for our understanding of not only the history of science but the history of humankind.”

He added: “I’m delighted that the notebooks will be going on public display this summer, giving visitors a once-in-a-lifetime chance to come face-to-face with Darwin’s Tree of Life sketch.”

Darwin sketched the famous diagram in summer 1837, following his recent return from his round-the-world trip aboard HMS Beagle. He would go on to publish a more developed version of the ‘Tree of Life’ in his 1859 work On the Origin of Species, a foundational text in evolutionary biology.


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After the notebooks were declared stolen in 2020, the UL said that the value of the notebooks were “difficult to estimate” due to their “unique nature”, but that it would “probably run into millions of pounds”.

Although the manuscripts have now been returned, Cambridgeshire Police, who assisted with the original appeal, intend to continue their investigation into the case.

A police spokesperson said: “We share the university’s delight that these priceless notebooks are now back where they belong. 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 should call 101 and quote reference 35/71468/20 or contact us online at https://www.cambs.police.uk/contact/af/contact-us/.”