Priceless notebooks belonging to Charles Darwin, one containing his famous "tree of life" sketch mapping out his theory of natural selection, have been mysteriously returned to Cambridge University more than 20 years after they went missing.
The university launched an appeal to get the notebooks back in 2020, in partnership with antique book experts, local police and Interpol, the international policing agency.
And to the astonishment of staff at the university's library, on March 9, the notebooks were returned.
Wrapped in plastic and left in a bright pink gift bag, with no obvious signs of damage, they were left outside the librarian’s office on the fourth floor of the grand 17-story library building, the university said in a statement Tuesday.
There was no clue as to who returned the books, just a message inside a brown envelope that read: "Librarian, Happy Easter X"“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express," Cambridge University Librarian Jessica Gardner 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 famous "tree of life" sketch dates to the summer of 1837 when Darwin had recently returned from his trip on board HMS Beagle, more than 20 years before the publication of "On the Origin of Species."
The notebooks are known in evolutionary biology as the "transmutation notebooks" as they are considered the first point at which Darwin came up with the theory of how species could "transmute," or adapt and change through generations.
“Objects such as these are crucial for our understanding of not only the history of science but the history of humankind,” said Stephen J. Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.
However, the police investigation into who took the books continues. They were originally taken from the library's Special Collection Strong Rooms in September 2000 to be photographed. A routine check in January 2001 found that two notebooks — about the size of a paperback book — had not been returned.
The university said previous librarians thought the missing books had just been misplaced — with around 10 million items, this seemed possible. But years of searching found nothing and an in-depth search of the Darwin Archive in 2020 concluded it had likely been stolen.
Determined not to let thieves strike again, the university has built new high-security strong rooms and installed a range of security measures since 2001.
“These include CCTV, card-and-pin access to secure areas, a dedicated security team onsite and further root-and-branch reviews of all our security protocols to come — to make sure we minimize any future risk as far as humanly possible,” Gardner said.
Cambridgeshire Police said in a statement that it shared in the university's delight at the return of the books, but added that its investigation into who took them remains open.
"We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us," it said.
The notebooks will now return to the library’s Darwin Archives and will take center stage in a new public exhibition in July, which will also feature more than 15,000 letters written by Darwin. The exhibit will then be on display at the New York Public Library in 2023.