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Charles Darwin's notebooks return to Cambridge after being missing for 20 years


Over two decades ago, two tiny historic notebooks that once belonged to famed naturalist Charles Darwin disappeared from Cambridge University Library.

JAMES SECORD: The theory of evolution by natural selection is probably the most important theory in the Earth environmental and life sciences. And these notebooks are the place where Darwin works out the evidence for that theory and brings it forward.

RASCOE: That's James Secord, who examined the notebooks before they went missing. He's a retired history of science professor at Cambridge and now directs the library's Darwin Correspondence Project, a publicly available collection of all of Darwin's letters. At first, the notebooks were thought to have been misplaced. But after a widespread search, curators concluded they were likely stolen. In 2020, Cambridge University librarian Jessica Gardner spearheaded an appeal to the public to recover them.

JESSICA GARDNER: Your help could be critical in seeing the notebooks safely returned, and I would ask anyone who thinks they may know of the notebooks' whereabouts to get in touch. Please help.

RASCOE: For a long time after that, nothing happened. And then in March of this year...

SECORD: The librarian was coming into our office one day, and there was a small pink gift bag there. And she opened it up. And it had a little note inside. It said, Happy Easter with a kiss.

RASCOE: Also in the bag, the missing notebooks covered in plastic wrap.

SECORD: She couldn't open them up right away because, of course, effectively, the pink bag was a crime scene. And the police had been looking at all of that, working out what went on.

RASCOE: The police investigation remains open, but they let a team at the library examine the notebooks to make sure they were real and nothing was missing. That team included Secord since he'd handled the books before the disappearance. Other technical experts analyzed the paper, the ink and other clues that would confirm the authenticity.

SECORD: You're talking about hundreds of pages that would be very hard to forge completely. And you can't go out and buy a notebook from 1837 down at your local stationery store.

RASCOE: They concluded the notebooks were real and in good condition.

SECORD: And everyone, of course, is absolutely thrilled that they're back.

RASCOE: Darwin had other notebooks, but Secord says these two are really significant because they show him beginning his evolutionary research in a really concentrated way. Transcriptions and scans existed of both notebooks before they disappeared. But Secord says he thinks the physical books offer something different, a reminder that Darwin was a real person who carried these physical objects with him as a tool for his thinking.

SECORD: They can help people to connect with Darwin's theory and this process that he goes through when he's doing his research. That really is invaluable.

RASCOE: The library plans to show the notebooks in an exhibition of Darwin's manuscripts and papers starting in July. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.