Missing Ink: Darwin Notebooks, Long Unseen, Now Believed Stolen

Nov 24, 2020

Have you seen Charles Darwin's missing notebooks? If so, the authorities — and some "heartbroken" librarians — would like to have a word with you.

That's the bottom line of an appeal issued Tuesday by Cambridge University Library in the United Kingdom. The library, which manages a massive archive of the famed naturalist's work, said it's seeking two notebooks that have been missing for nearly two decades — and that, after an exhaustive search, they fear were stolen.

Cambridgeshire police confirmed Tuesday that they have opened a formal investigation into the disappearance. The library says the pair of journals, which it estimates being worth millions of dollars, have also been added to the Art Loss Register in the U.K. and Interpol's database of stolen works of art.

"It is deeply regretful to me that these notebooks remain missing despite numerous widescale searches over the past 20 years, including the largest search in the library's history earlier this year," Jessica Gardner, the Cambridge University librarian, said in a recorded plea for public help.

"We would be hugely grateful for anyone with information that might assist in their recovery," she added. "Someone, somewhere may be able to help us return these notebooks to their proper place at the heart of the U.K.'s cultural and scientific heritage."


Among the missing papers is a sketch that Darwin composed in 1837, shortly after returning from the voyage on the HMS Beagle that helped inspire his theory of evolution. The little drawing, better known among scholars as the Tree of Life sketch, reveals elements of Darwin's thinking more than two decades before he fleshed out his ideas in his groundbreaking On the Origin of Species.

Included in the missing notebooks is Darwin's famous Tree of Life sketch, according to Cambridge University Library.
Cambridge University Library

In at least one way, the date of the library's announcement was a natural selection: Darwin's seminal work was published precisely 161 years, to the day, before Cambridge released its appeal for help Tuesday.

Why did it take so long for the library to report the notebooks missing? Though a number of searches had turned up nothing as to their whereabouts, the prevailing assumption among Gardner's predecessors was that the notebooks simply had been "misfiled," the librarian told the BBC.

The library said the notebooks were last seen in the fall of 2000 when they were taken out of the room "where the rarest and most valuable items are kept" for a photography session. But they were not found during a "routine check" conducted in January 2001.

The two notebooks were contained in a small box "about the size of a paperback book," according to the library.

Several investigations followed, but it was only after the failure of a comprehensive search of the Darwin archive's 189 boxes this year that the library came to a different — and altogether more sinister — conclusion: "They have likely been stolen."

If there is a silver lining here, it is this: Before the disappearance of their physical manuscripts, both notebooks were digitized — and they are available for anyone to peruse online currently here and here.

If you happen to have any information regarding these notebooks' whereabouts, the local police are accepting tips here, and the library welcomes further information via email.

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