May 16, 2022

Darwin Notebooks Missing for 20 Years Returned to University of Cambridge Library; Items Anonymously Left in a Pink Gift Bag, 15 Months After Launch of a Worldwide Appeal to Find Them

From the AP:

A page from Darwin’s 1837 notebook showing the Tree of Life sketch. Photo: Stuart Roberts

Two of naturalist Charles Darwin’s notebooks that were reported stolen from Cambridge University’s library have been returned, two decades after they disappeared.


The notebooks, which include the 19th-century scientist’s famous 1837 “Tree of Life” sketch, went missing in 2001 after being removed for photographing, though at the time staff believed they might have been misplaced. After searches of the library’s collection of 10 million books, maps and manuscripts failed to find them, they were reported stolen to police in October 2020.

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From the University of Cambridge:

Their return comes 15 months after Cambridge University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner launched a worldwide appeal for information, in partnership with Cambridgeshire Police and Interpol.

The notebooks were returned anonymously to the Library on March 9, 2022, and are in good condition, with no obvious signs of significant handling or damage sustained in the years since their disappearance.

They were returned in a bright pink gift bag containing the notebooks’ archive box and inside a plain brown envelope addressed to the University Librarian with the printed message:

Happy Easter

“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express.

“Along with so many others all across the world, I 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.

Cambridge University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner looks on as the notebooks are verified by the University Library’s Dr Katrina Dean and Jim Bloxham. Photo: Stuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library

“Everyone at the Library was incredibly touched by the response to our appeal and to know that so many others felt the same sense of loss we did only reaffirmed our decision to ask the public for their help.

“We believe that decision has had a direct bearing on the notebooks being returned and we’d like to take this opportunity to give the public our heartfelt thanks.

“That’s why we’re also thrilled to be able to be able to put the notebooks on display this summer, to give everyone the opportunity to see these remarkable notebooks in the flesh.

“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, cannot be overstated.”

Dr Jessica Gardner, Cambridge University Librarian

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About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.