Two decades ago, two notebooks that once belonged to British naturalist Charles Darwin were discovered missing in January 2001. On March 9-15, months after the launch of a worldwide campaign to find the missing documents, the notebooks were safely returned.
The notebooks — one of which contained the scientist’s “Tree of Life” sketch — came back to Cambridge University Libraries in plastic wrap along with the notebooks’ archive box. There was also a note printed on the brown envelope that contained the items:
The package was found on the floor in a public area of the library — in a pink gift bag.
“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express. Along with so many others all across the world, I was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense,” Cambridge University librarian Jessica Gardner said in a statement. “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.”
In November 2020, Gardner worked with the Cambridgeshire Police and the International Criminal Police Organization to issue a “public appeal” for help with locating the documents.
“The sole aim of our public appeal was to have the manuscripts safely returned to our safekeeping and I am delighted to have had such a successful outcome in such a relatively short space of time,” she continued. “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.”
Gardner added that Cambridge University will place the notebooks on public display during the summer — “to give everyone the opportunity to see these remarkable notebooks in the flesh.”
Born in 1809, Charles Darwin was a British naturalist best known for his books “On the Origin of Species” and “The Descent of Man,” which argue that all creatures — including humans — emerged from a common ancestor. His works set off global controversy that endure to the present day.
Despite his undeniable influence on world history, Darwin has by no means been immune to cancel culture.
As racial activism spread from the United States to Europe, officials at the United Kingdom’s Natural History Museum reviewed exhibits on the biologist over concerns that his work is “offensive” and that his voyage to the Galapagos Islands was “colonialist” in nature.
“The Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated that we need to do more and act faster, so as a first step we have commenced an institution-wide review on naming and recognition,” museum director Michael Dixon explained to staff at the time. “We want to learn and educate ourselves, recognizing that greater understanding and awareness on diversity and inclusion are essential.”