The fossils, which had been ‘lost’ for 165 years, were rediscovered by chance by the British Geological Survey. Some of these were collected by Charles Darwin himself. They form a remarkable discovery, since they were simply in a drawer marked “unregistered fossil plants.”
Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleontologist at the Royal Holloway, at the University of London states that he was in the BGS archive looking for carboniferous fossil-wood when he made the discovery. The slides show pieces of fossils, one of which Darwin collected on the Island of Chiloe, Chile, in 1834. The piece of wood is from the Tertiary period and over 40 million years old.
Falcon-Lang found hundreds of fossilized plants, captured in glass slides so that they could be studied under a microscope. It turns out that Joseph Hooker, long-time director of Kew Gardens and Darwin’s best friend, assembled the collection at the beginning of his career in 1846. Some of the specimens were taken by Hooker himself in Antarctica in 1840. Others stem from the cabinet of Reverend John Henslow, Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge, whose daughter later married Hooker.
The collection slipped into obscurity partly because of bad timing since Hooker had set off on an expedition to the Himalayas by the time the BGS’s formal specimen register was established in 1848. When he returned, the collection was moved to the Museum of Practical Geology in Piccadilly and he no longer had the opportunity to label it. In 1935, the collection was moved again to the Geological Museum in South Kensington.
Fifty years later, the fossils returned to the BGS and were placed in storage. The BGS is home to more than three million fossils, which were collected and recorded with precision over the last two centuries. The significance of Hooker’s uncatalogued collection gradually passed out of memory.