The Cambridge University library has admitted that its staff has been unable to find two of Charles Darwin’s most important notebooks for 20 years. Their cost can be several million dollars.
One of the notebooks was made the famous first version of the drawing “Tree of life” with the words “I think” at the top of the page. In this drawing, the scientist first tried to present his thoughts on the interaction between different species of the same genus, which later formed his theory of evolution.
After a long and thorough search, the current library management concluded that the notebooks were most likely stolen. The library expressed regret that the police were not involved in the case in time and now asks everyone who may have information about the missing artifacts to respond.
“It’s just awful,” the Cambridge library head, Jessica Gardner, told the BBC. “We will do everything we can to find out what happened.”
Darwin’s Notebooks were bound in red leather and kept in a specially made blue box.
How the notebooks disappeared
The last time the library staff saw them was in November 2000. Then someone from the University staff asked to bring them from the storage for precious handwritten documents to photograph. The notebooks were delivered to the Studio, which was located in a temporary room on the library’s territory since the building was being renovated at the time.
But two months later, during a routine check, they were not found on the spot. “We know they were photographed in November,” Gardner says. — But we don’t know what happened between now and January 2001 when they weren’t in their usual place on the storage shelves. And, unfortunately, we don’t have any more information.”
At the time, the library staff thought the notebooks were actually returned but placed them in a different location. “My predecessors sincerely believed that they were mistakenly put on the wrong shelf, and they will be found,” explains Gardner, who took over the Cambridge University library in 2017.
Over the years, the library staff has repeatedly combed various departments of the repository to find notebooks, but the search did not bring results.
Given the size of the Cambridge library, this is not surprising. There are more than 10 million documents, including maps, manuscripts, and other artifacts, and the total length of the shelves is more than 200 km.
In early 2020, the library staff made a last attempt to find the artifacts. They manually checked the contents of 189 boxes containing Darwin’s books, drawings, and letters but found no priceless red leather-bound notebooks.
Then Gardner decided that it was time to recognize that the notebooks were not just lying around somewhere and would not be found by themselves. “With a heavy heart, I realized that we made the wrong conclusions. These notebooks were most likely stolen,” she says.
According to the Cambridge University library’s current head, her predecessors made a big mistake when they ruled out the possibility of theft.
Over the past 20 years, security measures in the library have significantly tightened. “Now, if an artifact of such significance and value were lost, we would contact the police,” Gardner says.
Cambridge police are already aware of the incident. The notebooks are also listed in the international register of missing artifacts and the database of stolen art objects of Interpol.
Simultaneously, the head of the Cambridge library does not rule out that the notebooks may still be found somewhere in the building-but a full inspection of all shelves and storage will take five years.
In the meantime, she calls on the public, former employees, and academics — anyone who might know something about the two red leather-bound notebooks — to share information with the library via email or contact the Cambridge police.
“There is a chance that they are lying under someone’s bed, and this is the best option for us. Perhaps someone realized that it is impossible to sell them or keeps them, – says Jessica Gardner. — Now you can, without risking anything, contact us about this, perhaps even anonymously.”
What was in the missing notebooks?
In July 1837, when Charles Darwin was 28 years old, he made the first sketch of the Tree of life” in an attempt to schematically describe the relationships of species on Earth.
Darwin was at his home in London, where he had just returned from the Galapagos Islands onboard the Beagle. At this point, the scientist was working on ideas that came to him during this journey.
“In these notebooks, Darwin made the first attempts to question the origin of species,” explains Jim Secord, a scientist at the University of Cambridge. — These notes help you literally see how he thought. There are a lot of notes about a variety of data that it works with. It becomes clear how quickly he passed through all these ideas; you can feel his intellectual energy.”
More than 20 years later, Darwin put a more detailed version of the “Tree of life” in his famous book “The Origin of Species by natural selection.” This scientific work, which laid the foundation for evolutionary biology, was published in 1859.
According to him, the loss of such an important artifact would be a real tragedy.
The British scientist-naturalist Charles Darwin changed the world’s idea that existed at the beginning of the XIX century and marked the beginning of evolutionary biology.
When his book “The Origin of Species by natural selection” was published, many were skeptical, as it contradicted the belief that God created the world and all living things in it.
In 1871, Darwin’s second book was published, in which he applied the theory of evolution to humans, suggesting that humans and apes share common ancestors.
Darwin’s theory remains fundamental to modern ideas about the world.