Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2009 | People

Napoleon Dynamo: J. David Markham

By Shelbi Thomas
J. David Markham has devoted his entire career to stirring up interest in a man who died nearly 200 years ago.

As one of the world's foremost experts on Napoleon, Markham has written or contributed to nine books and collected hundreds of artifacts related to the French emperor and military leader. The Olympia, Washington, home of Markham and his wife, Barbara, overflows with historic treasures including framed engravings, porcelain figurines, busts, and one of the world's largest collections of Napoleonic snuffboxes. If the house sounds like a museum, that's because it practically is one. The David Markham Collection has been featured in several museum exhibitions throughout the United States.

Markham's fascination with Napoleon began at an early age when his father, former UI journalism professor James Walter Markham, would tell him stories about historical figures. The drama of Napoleon's rise to power intrigued Markham. "Napoleon famously said, 'What a novel my life has been!'" says Markham, 71BS. "It's hooked a lot of people over the years, and I guess I'm one of them."

In pursuit of all things Napoleon, Markham has traveled throughout western and central Europe. This past November, he became president of the International Napoleonic Society, an academic organization of about 600 scholars worldwide. The drive behind Markham's research has always been to make history accessible and interesting. He's most proud of his book Napoleon for Dummies, which has been translated into Dutch, French, and Russian. Markham has also appeared as a Napoleonic expert on the History, Learning, Discovery, and National Geographic Channels, and he co-hosts a "Napoleon 101" podcast that boasts an international audience of 30,000 people.

People traditionally see Napoleon as a great military commander, but Markham finds much more to admire in the man who changed the course of Western history. In his view, Napoleon reformed the economic, educational, legal, and military systems in France and spread these progressive ideas to the places he conquered. Many of his changes are still in place today, including the Napoleonic Code, a civil code that establishes the rule of law.

Markham feels honored to be connected to such a legacy. "I'm convinced that 2,000 years from now, people will still be reading about Napoleon," he says. "And with luck, that means they'll still be reading my books."