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Professor Emeritus James Malfetti, Health Education Pioneer, Passes Away

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James Malfetti Sr

James Malfetti Sr., TC Professor Emeritus

James Malfetti Sr., Professor Emeritus in TC’s Department of Health and Behavior Studies, passed away in early November at the age of 92.

Malfetti, who spent 43 years on the faculty of first Columbia and then Teachers College, was the co-author of the groundbreaking 1964 sex-education text Reproduction, Sex and Preparation for Marriage, which was published in at least five countries. During the 1950s, he developed Columbia College’s first undergraduate course in health and hygiene.  His later writings also dealt with sex education for school physicians and the importance of college hygiene.

Malfetti was also a leading authority on traffic safety, and particularly on the issue of drunk driving. In his 1957 work Electronic Controls and Traffic Safety, he predicted the development of self-driving cars, an innovation now actively in the works. 

That one scholar would focus on two such seemingly disparate fields was perhaps no accident. Malfetti, who authored the 1970 book Driving and Connotative Meanings, believed that larger issues underlie people’s behavior behind the wheel.  

“You can be so preoccupied with something irritating or aggravating in your life that you fail to pay attention to your driving,” he once said. “Suppressed feelings about what you would like to have done with your life can come out when you're driving. There's also the competitive aspect. People like to do better than others; they don't like people to get ahead of them.”

James Luke Malfetti grew up in New York City. After serving as a Navy officer in World II in Europe and the Pacific, he studied at Columbia, earning his B.S. in 1947, his A.M. in 1948, and his Ed.D. in Health Sciences and Psychology in 1951.  

Malfetti subsequently served as Assistant to the Dean of Columbia College, Associate Director of the 1954 Bicentennial of Columbia University, which celebrated “Man’s Right to Knowledge and the Free Use Thereof,” and Associate Director of the American Assembly, created by Columbia President Dwight D. Eisenhower to focus leading experts in different fields on major societal issues. He also directed the University’s Safety Research and Education Project.

Malfetti also served on committees of the Transportation Research Board, the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences. Much of his research on traffic safety was funded by the AAA Foundation.

“Jim lived a remarkable life at Columbia,” John Allegrante, Professor of Health Education and TC’s Vice President for International Affairs, writes in a tribute to his former mentor. As a newly arrived assistant professor, Allegrante first encountered Malfetti when the latter was serving as founding Chair of what was then TC’s Department of Health Education.

Malfetti was not only “a poet and a public intellectual,” according to Allegrante, but also “one of the truly great teachers” who “dispensed the all-too-important lessons that are critical to leading a consequential life” and helped colleagues and students grapple with “the existential questions about where we were going and how we would get there.”

“Jim, more than any other member of the faculty I encountered at Teachers College, demonstrated an untiring and unflinching patience with me and his student advisees when it came to such questions,” writes Allegrante, who remained close with Malfetti over the years. “He listened intently and was skilled at what we would refer to today as ‘motivational interviewing.’”

Malfetti is survived by his wife, Darlene Winter Malfetti; daughters Joyann Strachan and Kimsue McNiven;  sons James, Jr. and Brian; two step-children, Bradford Winter and Mary Winter Keebler; and numerous grandchildren.

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