Cambridge University has lost priceless Charles Darwin notebooks

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Darwin's Tree of Life sketch

NEWS AND VIEWS (COMMENT): They are worth millions but they are unsaleable. Cambridge University has lost two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks written in 1830 after he visited the Galapogos Islands. They are considered to be two of the most valuable manuscripts in the world. One of them features Charles Darwin’s sketch for his Tree of Life. On one page there is a spindly drawing of his Tree of Life which begins with the words, “I think”. The sketch is the foundation stone of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Darwin's Tree of Life sketch

Darwin’s Tree of Life sketch. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

It has been digitalised and it is therefore still on record on a computer hard drive but there’s no substitute for the original and the loss is devastating, the university said. It appears that the theft took place when the documents were removed during building works and when they were photographed in a temporary storage area. This took place in September 2000. They discovered that they were not in their proper place and that was that for many years. They believed that they had been mis-shelved, so simply misplaced but not stolen. They then discovered that they were stolen.

It is admitted that they are worth millions but impossible to sell on the open market. The spindly sketch of a tree became his central theory for the ground breaking On the Origin of Species. A single leaf from Darwin’s draft version sold for £490,000 a couple of years ago.

The university has stepped up security at their storage facility which contains about 10 million books and other articles. Of course, the originals are irreplaceable. No doubt somebody somewhere, who is very rich wanted to possess it and he has succeeded. He probably looks at it from time to time and revels in the pleasure of that experience. But it’s lost to the public at large.

I would have thought that Cambridge University needs to do more than simply step up their security arrangements. There needs to be a complete overhaul of how they store this huge number of books at their library.