Charles Darwin’s “Tree of Life” notebooks, missing for two decades, mysteriously returned — along with a message for the librarian

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 university said Tuesday that the manuscripts were left in the library inside a pink gift bag, along with a note wishing the librarian a Happy Easter. 

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.

Britain Darwin's Notebooks
In this photo provided by Cambridge University Library on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, Dr Jessica Gardner looks at the “Tree of Life” sketch in one of naturalist Charles Darwin’s notebook which have recently been returned after going missing in 2001, in Cambridge, England. 

Stuart Roberts / AP


The university’s director of library services Jessica Gardner had launched a worldwide appeal for information. Local detectives notified the global police organization Interpol and launched an international hunt for the notebooks, valued at millions of dollars.

On March 9 the books reappeared, left in a public area of the building, outside the librarian’s office, which is not covered by security cameras. The two notebooks were wrapped in clingfilm inside their archive box. The accompanying note said: “Librarian Happy Easter X.”

The books are in “good condition, with no obvious signs of significant handling or damage sustained in the years since their disappearance,” the university said.

Darwin filled the notebooks with ideas shortly after returning from his voyage around the world on HMS Beagle, developing ideas that would bloom into his landmark work on evolution, “On the Origin of Species.”

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Charles Darwin’s “Tree of Life” sketch is seen on a page of “Notebook B,” one of the trove of Darwin documents that had been stored in the Cambridge University library until it went missing in 2001.

Cambridge University Digital Library


Gardner said her feeling of relief at the books’ reappearance was “profound and almost impossible to adequately express.”

“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,” she said. “

“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.”

The notebooks are set to go on public display from July as part of a Darwin exhibition at the library.

Cambridgeshire Police said its investigation was continuing, “and we are following up some lines of inquiry.”

“We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us,” the force said.


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