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Charles Darwin’s Notebooks Mysteriously Returned after 20 Years

Missing for two decades, it is still a mystery who took the scientist’s notebooks.

By:  |  April 7, 2022  |    615 Words
charles darwin notebook

Darwin’s notebook featuring the ‘Tree of Life’ sketch (Photo by Stuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library)

When you check out a book from the library and don’t return it on time, you can expect to pay a fine. But what happens when something worth millions of dollars is taken from a library? Something of historical significance and value? And what happens when that object is mysteriously returned 20 years later? When Charles Darwin’s notebooks went missing, it sparked an international investigation, but the books were never found. After two decades, these priceless artifacts have been returned, but the mystery of who took them remains.

In 2001, staff from Cambridge University library noticed the notebooks, which included the “Tree of Life” sketch from 1837, were missing. These artifacts are very important because they contain Darwin’s notes and formulas for his theory of evolution. The notebooks had been taken out to photograph their contents, but when they went missing, the library employees figured they had been misplaced. However, after a search of more than ten million books and other documents, they realized the items had been stolen. In October 2020, they reported the theft to the authorities.

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Darwin’s Notebooks B and C moments after being unwrapped. (Photo by Stuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library)

Library staff also put out a worldwide request to get help finding the treasures. The plea went out on November 24, a significant date because it is also known as Evolution Day, the anniversary of when Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. Then, on March 9, 2022, someone anonymously returned the notebooks.

Luckily, Darwin’s books were given back in good condition. They had been enclosed in cling wrap and left in a public area outside the librarian’s office. The notebooks, and the archive box that held them, were placed in a pink gift bag inside an office envelope. The outside of the package had a simple typed message: “Librarian Happy Easter X.” Although the notebooks were returned, international authorities are still looking for who took them.

Cambridge University Libraries will be displaying Darwin’s notebooks in a free exhibition titled “Darwin in Conversation,” which will open on July 9 in the town of Cambridge, England.

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Illustration of the H.M.S. Beagle carrying Charles Darwin’s expedition in the Straits of Magellan (Getty Images)

Who Was Charles Darwin?

Charles Darwin was born on the same day as President Abraham Lincoln: February 12, 1809, except Darwin was born in England.

On December 27, 1831, he boarded the HMS Beagle to go on a five-year expedition to study flora, fauna, and geology. He visited lots of places including the Galapagos Islands, where he came up with the theory of “natural selection.”

He theorized that creatures who adapt to their environment have a better chance to survive. They would reproduce more, while those less well adapted to their surroundings would not be able to breed as much. Those who adapted survived, while those who didn’t would fade out and even face extinction. According to his theory, species gradually adapt to their environment by evolution.

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It took more than 20 years before Darwin felt comfortable enough to publish his theories. He was concerned that the public would consider his idea too radical, especially among Christians, of which he was one. In 1859, he published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

The theory didn’t take long to gain support. By the time he died in 1882, Darwin’s theory of evolution was an accepted scientific work. To honor his great contribution, he was buried beside queens and kings in Westminster Abbey.

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