Two decades ago, notebooks written in the 19th century by naturalist Charles Darwin were stolen from Cambridge University's library.
Now they have been returned unexpectedly. The university reported Tuesday that the manuscripts were left in the library in a large, pink gift bag along with a note that wished the librarian a Happy Easter. The printed message, "Librarian / Happy Easter / X" was written on a plain brown envelope.
The manuscripts include the scientist's famous 1837 "Tree of Life” sketch and were written with ideas penned by Darwin after his around-the-world voyage on the HMS Beagle.
The ideas would later fuel his landmark work on evolution "On the Origin of Species." The manuscripts first went missing in 2001 when they were being photographed. Staff at the library initially suspected they might have been misplaced. It took several years to go through the library's collection of 10 million books — a multi-year search that was unfruitful.
In October 2020, library staff reported the books stolen to police. The manuscripts are worth millions of dollars.
Not caught on camera
Global police organization Interpol launched an international hunt for the notebooks. Now, almost a year and a half after they were reported as stolen, the manuscripts were returned. According to the university, the notebooks were left outside the librarian's office on March 9 — an area not covered by CCTV surveillance cameras. They were wrapped in clingfilm inside their original archive box and did not appear to have been damaged.
Jessica Gardner, the university's director of library services, said she was "delighted" and relieved to have them back. "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.
In a video posted to Twitter, Gardner also announced that the missing manuscripts would be on display in an exhibition free to the public called "Darwin in Conversation" this July. "We hadn't dreamt that we'd be able to include these in the public exhibition when we were planning it, but now they're back, we can, and everyone will have a chance to see them," she said.
She then thanked the public and said it was clear that Darwin meant a lot, not only to those at Cambridge, "but to the whole world." Cambridgeshire Police said they would continue their investigation and asked the public to come forward with any information.
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