As It Happens·Q&A

Missing Charles Darwin notebooks may have been stolen, says Cambridge Library director

In 2001, staff believed the books had been improperly shelved. Now a police investigation is underway. "We are desperately concerned," says the library's deputy director of research collections, Mark Purcell.

'We are desperately concerned about their absence,' says Mark Purcell

From 1837, the iconic sketch of Charles Darwin's Tree of Life is in one of the two notebooks missing from Cambridge University Library. (Cambridge University Library)


Mark Purcell is desperately looking for two of Charles Darwin's notebooks that went missing from the Cambridge University Library 20 years ago. 

In 2001, staff believed the books had been improperly shelved somewhere in the library. But now, the deputy director of research collections says that can't be the case.

"Having taken advice from security specialists, from the police in the U.K., from the top end of the London and international book trade, we have come to the firm conclusion that we do not believe the items were misplaced, [but] that they were stolen," Purcell told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Darwin documented the beginnings of his ideas on evolution in these books, just after his journey to the Galapagos Islands in the 1830s.

Known as the Transmutation Notebooks, they contain an early sketch of Darwin's iconic Tree of Life image, which posited that life on Earth evolved from ancient species diverging over time. In the illustration, different forms of life — from bacteria, to plants and animals — are related to each other and traced back like tree branches to a single trunk.

Purcell spoke with Off about the library's appeal to the public for information on the missing books. Here is part of their conversation.

Mr. Purcell, why did it take the library two decades to figure out that these notebooks were not misshelved, but probably stolen?

The situation was reviewed carefully at the time, in winter 2001. The manuscripts were last seen in the library's photographic studio for a routine order in November 2000. They were noted as not being present in 2001. Our predecessors then followed up and concluded that the items were missing.

The handwriting, the impression of the pen nib on the paper ... It's a sense of intimacy and closeness to, you know, a figure who is, by any standards, one of the great figures in the history of science.- Mark Purcell, deputy director for research collections at Cambridge University Library
The Transmutation Notebooks were written by Charles Darwin in the 1830s. Cambridge University Library believes the 2 notebooks were stolen from their shelves some 20 years ago. (Cambridge University Library)

So, they said [the books] are missing, but 'missing' in terms of being misplaced as opposed to being gone, right? 


We're dealing with a library with about 130 linear kilometres of shelving, of which probably about 30 miles [48 km] of that is in high-security strong rooms, which is where manuscripts and rare books are kept. So it is rare, but it's not unknown for things to be misplaced, to be put in the wrong place and to come to light. That is clearly what our predecessors at the time thought ... had happened. 

Tell us a bit about these notebooks. I presume these were in that high security area. Describe what they are and why they're so important.

They're each about the size of a small postcard and they're about an eighth of an inch thick. They're in Victorian leather bindings. They, when you open them up, will contain Darwin's very Victorian, difficult-to-read handwriting. And one of them contains the very first of a series of Tree of Life diagrams, which are key to the evolution — if I can use that word — of Darwin's thinking in the 20 years between the [HMS] Beagle voyage and the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. 

When you handle items from the Darwin collection, you do get a sense of being close to the mind, to the individual, of one of the great figures in the history of science. The handwriting, the impression of the pen nib on the paper, the fact that ... there are drawings done by Charles Darwin's children on the back of the notes. It's a sense of intimacy and closeness to, you know, a figure who is, by any standards, one of the great figures in the history of science. 

Are the books digitized? Do you have copies of them?

Yes, we do. They are available on Cambridge Digital Library

I should say, nothing for us replaces the originals. We are desperately concerned about their absence from our shelves and we desperately want to get them back.... The content survives, but for us, that isn't the point. These are iconic items of global significance. 

Who would be interested in stealing them? They're not something that you could put up on the market.

We have really no idea of how or by whom they could have been stolen. But you are absolutely right. These items are not salable in any conventional way. They are too famous. Anyone with even the slightest interest in Darwin would very quickly trace them back to Cambridge and would recognize that they were handling stolen property. 

Cambridge University Library launched a public appeal on November 24, coinciding with Evolution Day. On the same day in 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species. (Associated Press)
So where they are, what has happened to them, I don't know. What we do know is that there is a precedent, some of it quite recent, for items like this being stolen and then turning up again decades later.

About 10 days ago, a set of manuscripts associated with Alan Turing, as in the Enigma machine, the great computing pioneer, were returned to an archive in the U.K. from the U.S., having apparently been stolen by a visitor in the early 1980s. So, we are hopeful that by launching an appeal and bringing this out into the open, that this may uncover where these items are.

Twenty years is a long time, though. Had the police been called or had this been recognized as stolen at the beginning, would you think there'd be a better chance of actually being able to find them?

It's very difficult to speculate about what happened or what might have happened 20 years ago, but clearly you are right that after 20 years, there are no active leads at the moment. 

We're working with the Cambridge police and the U.K. specialist police in London. And we hope that by making this appeal, we may open up some leads.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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