Seen as the “father of African psychiatry”, Dr. Tigani El-Mahi is one of the most prominent founders of the African Psychiatric Association. He was born in April 1911, in the rural Kawa village of the White Nile Province in Sudan. He graduated from the Kitchener School of Medicine Khartoum in 1935. He was granted the Diploma in Psychological Medicine in 1949 from the United Kingdom. On return back home, he joined the Sudan Medical Service, and founded the clinic for Nervous Disorders in Khartoum. He is the first Sudanese and the first African to specialize in psychiatry.
From 1959 to 1969, Dr. El-Mahi joined the WHO-EMRO as a Regional Adviser in Mental Health. In 1969, the University of Khartoum offered him the chair of Psychiatry in the Faculty of Medicine. His researches and studies are reliable scientific references taught in Departments of Psychiatry in many countries of the world. Dr. Al-Tijani also participated in several international such as the 1st Conference on Education of Psychological Medicine where he participated as President, UN sponsored conference held in Geneva. He also delivered many lectures at American universities on psychiatry.
He played a great role in Sudanese political life after the revolution of October 21, 1964, he was chosen as Member and Rotational President of the Supreme Council of State, and then President of the same Council in 1965. He was admired by many scholars and politicians around the world. The French historian and anthropologist Jacques Berque visited him in Khartoum, and was stunned by his vast knowledge and culture. The Queen of England Elizabeth II, during her visit to Sudan in 1965, praised him for his scientific and cultural knowledge.
Regarding his stances with Egypt, Dr. El-Mahi volunteered during the tripartite aggression against Egypt in 1956, and joined the Egyptian Medical Corps as chief psychiatrist. In December 1964, he came to Egypt to celebrate Victory Day that took place in the city of Port Said; and met with President Gamal Abdel Nasser. President Abdel Nasser wrote him a letter on the 1st of March, 1960 : “Dr. Tigani El-Mahi, May Peace and God’s mercy and blessings be upon you.
I’ve received your book (Introduction to the History of Arab Medicine) that you’ve gifted to me. I liked the fact that the book was a historical journey that recorded the Arabs’ contribution to civilization since the beginning of time, and that the Arabs were intellectual pioneers who provided great humanitarian services.” Part of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s letter to Dr. El-Mahi.
His professional career was not limited to practicing medicine and writing about psychiatry, but he was a man of varied interests, he was known for his knowledge of humanities, social sciences, philosophy, history, civilization sciences and the origins and history of psychiatry. Hence, El-Mahi had a vast knowledge of psychiatry in the full social and cultural context. In his research on African culture, he studied ancient African archeology and civilizations. He knew Egyptian Hieroglyphs, played the piano and had an interest in different art styles.
In his opening speech at the 1st African Psychiatric Conference, he said: "In African psychiatry, one can follow the early start, transformation, maturity and spread of psychiatric knowledge around the world today. Therefore, in this meeting, our deliberations, in light of this great continent, will lead us to new perspectives of understanding, where historical, social, economic and cultural factors merge, interact and emerge as an integral part of the concept of mental health.”
Before his death, Dr. Tigani El-Mahi left behind a large library, which contains about 20,000 items, 6000 documents which include maps and a collection of official letters. The Library is now part of the Khartoum University Library. He conductted pioneering and famous studies in psychiatry. Dr. El-Mahi died on the 8th of January 1970. The first mental health hospital established in Sudan carries his name “The Al-Tigani Al-Mahi University Psychiatry Hospital”, and it is considered one of the largest specialized hospitals in Africa.