darwin, cambridge, history

The return of Darwin's missing notebooks brings joy and relief to Cambridge University librarian.

Sometimes art imitates life. And other times, life imitates an art heist movie.

More than a century ago in the late 1830s, the innovative and disruptive scientist Charles Darwin had just returned from the Galapagos Islands. In his small, leather-bound notepad, he began to draw a vision that played on his mind: a tree with many branches.

The sketch was simple, crude even, but it helped inspire Darwin’s most elegant and groundbreaking theories on natural selection and evolution. His “Tree of Life” sketch put forth the notion that we are all connected, not just metaphorically. Without it, we might never have had his famous book “On the Origin of Species,” considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology.

Darwin's sketch of the Tree of Life. www.flickr.com

The notebook holds one of science's most important moments in history. And yet many thought it was gone forever. Until now.


BBC News reported that two of Darwin’s notebooks (one containing the original “Tree of Life” sketch) had first been noted as missing from their rightful home at Cambridge University back in January 2000.

Only two months prior, the University had received an “internal request” to remove them from the library so they could be photographed.

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Could this photo request have been a ruse? Merely an elaborate scheme for the thief to get their hands on the parcels? Where’s Sherlock when you need him?!

Twenty years of book scouring later (Cambridge University’s library contains more than 10 million books) and finally Dr. Jessica Gardner, the university’s librarian, called Interpol to report the books as stolen.

At this point, they could be anywhere.

Maybe it was coincidence, or maybe the burglar had a change of heart, but only 15 months after issuing a worldwide appeal, the library received a bright pink bag from an anonymous sender.

In the pink bag was a blue box. In the blue box was a plain brown envelope. In the envelope … the two notebooks, perfectly protected by plastic wrap. You can’t make this stuff up.

Another five days followed. The library would have to get permission from the police to open the plastic wrap. And then they'd have to spend time painstakingly examining the contents for authenticity; things like multiple types of ink, a bit of copper coming off the hinges and the right type of paper.

Not only were the notebooks genuine, they were “in remarkably good condition,” Dr. Gardner told the BBC. “Every page that should be there is there.”

As far as who sent the package, well … that remains the biggest mystery of all. The sender left no traces of their identity, and to the package only attached a short, cryptic typed note which read:

“Librarian. Happy Easter. X.”

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It’s rare to have such a fascinating whodunit in our modern time. But boy does this check all the boxes.

Though the university may never figure out exactly what happened to Darwin’s notebooks, having them back is enough for Dr. Gardner.

“I was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense,” she told the BBC.

It’s certainly made for one thrilling tale, all with a happy ending.

Joy

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