Stolen Charles Darwin Notebooks Worth Millions Returned With Bizarre Note


Rachael Funnell


Rachael Funnell

Digital Content Producer

Rachael is a writer and digital content producer at IFLScience with a Zoology degree from the University of Southampton, UK, and a nose for novelty animal stories.

Digital Content Producer

stolen charles darwin returned

Darwin’s 1837 "Tree of Life" sketch. Image credit: Stuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library

Stolen things being secretly returned is one of our favorite breeds of story here at IFLScience, and this week a doozy came from Cambridge University Library, UK, where someone snuck back some stolen notebooks that once belonged to Charles Darwin. The near-priceless books (estimated to be worth several millions) were dropped off in a pink gift bag which contained an envelope with a rather peculiar note addressed to the librarian.

Inside the envelope were the two books which had been wrapped in clingfilm and placed into boxes. One of the two contains Darwin’s 1837 "Tree of Life" sketch on a page beginning with the words “I think” before the naturalist created a diagrammatic representation of related species within a genus.

darwin stolen notebooks returned
The notebooks contain pivotal scribbles in Darwin's work into evolution. Image credit: Stuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library

The notebooks were first stolen sometime between 2000 and 2001 following a photoshoot of the library’s Special Collections Strong Rooms where their most valuable collections are kept. After the shoot, a routine check the following January revealed that a small box containing the two notebooks belonging to Darwin was missing.

In early 2020, fresh efforts were launched to pin down its location including fingerprint examinations of the Darwin Archive which consists of around 189 boxes. However, their location remained a mystery and it was concluded that they had indeed been stolen.

Confirmation of the theft galvanized Cambridge University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner to launch a worldwide appeal for information with the help of Cambridgeshire Police and Interpol. Fifteen months later, perhaps feeling the pressure, their anonymous keeper returned the two books with a note.

darwin stolen notebooks
A Happy Easter indeed. Image credit: Stuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library

The precious notebooks returned from their travels in good condition with no apparent evidence of damage since they were last under the care of the library. They had been bound together in cling film and left inside a bright pink gift bag on the floor outside the Librarian's office on March 9, 2022.


“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express,” said Gardner, who became Cambridge University Librarian in 2017, in a release. “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.”

Holiday officially over, the books are to get back to work as part of a display in an upcoming exhibition starting from July 9 called Darwin In Conversation.

“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,” said Gardener.

“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.”


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