February 27, 2019
The National Society of Black Physicists honors Dr. Alexa Irene Canady. Dr. Canady became the first female African-American neurosurgeon in the United States.
Alexa Irene Canady (born November 7, 1950) was born in Lansing, Michigan to Elizabeth Hortense (Golden) Canady and Dr. Clinton Canady, Jr. Her mother was an educator and former national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Despite having many education obstacles as a youth, Canady stood out among her peers academically, both in the classroom and by earning high scores on her tests in school. She was nominated as a National Achievement Scholar in 1967.
Dr. Canady attended the University of Michigan where she received her B.S. degree in zoology in 1971 and became a member of Delta Sigma Theta. She would then go on to receive her M.D. with cum laude honors from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1975. Initially she had an interest in internal medicine, but decided on neurosurgery after falling in love with neurology during her first two years of medical school. She settled on this specialty against the recommendations of her advisors. Knowing that gaining a residency as a black student would be difficult, Canady began building her resumé, reading countless articles and attending every conference and seminar she could, sometimes asking questions just to get known in the small field. Her vast appreciation for the fluidity of human anatomy would serve her well in her competitive field.
In 1975 she started a surgical intern at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. Although being an exceptional student, she still faced prejudice and discriminative comments as she was both the first black and female intern in the program. On her first day as an intern, she was told that “you must be our new equal-opportunity package”. Despite these prejudices, she was voted one of the top residents by her fellow physicians. After completing her internship, she went to the University of Minnesota for her residency, becoming the first female African-American neurosurgery resident in the United States. Although she has stated that she wasn't focused on the history she was making, after moving to Pensacola, Florida in 2001, she realized the significance of her accomplishments and what it meant for other African-Americans and women in medicine.
In 1982, after finishing residency, Dr. Canady decided to specialize as a Pediatric neurosurgeon, becoming the first African-American and the first Woman to do so. She started practicing for a short time at the Henry Ford Hospital before going to work at the Children’s hospital of Michigan. She then became the first African-American woman to be a board-certified Neurosurgeon in 1984. She became Chief of Neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital of Michigan in 1987 and held the position until her partial retirement in 2001. During her time as Chief, she specialized in congenital spinal abnormalities, hydrocephalus, trauma and brain tumors.
During her years at the Children's Hospital of Michigan, Dr. Canady also continued research with Wayne State University. She served as a Professor of Neurosurgery there as well. Her work and accomplishments have opened the door for many surgeons to be of all races and genders. From 2001 to her retirement in 2012, Dr. Canady worked as a part-time surgeon and consultant at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, Florida. After moving to Pensacola, Dr. Canady initially considered herself retired. However, after meeting local doctors and realizing the need for a pediatric neurosurgeon in the area, Dr. Canady decided to join the staff at Sacred Heart Hospital, working part-time. In addition to her career as a surgeon, Dr. Canady continued to do research with Wayne State University. This research would eventually lead to the development of an antisiphon shunt that helps to treat hydrocephalus.
She was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1989 and received the American Medical Women’s Association President’s Award in 1993 and in 1994 was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from Wayne State University Medical School. In 1984 she was named Teacher of the Year by Children's Hospital of Michigan. She received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1986. She is a member of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the Society of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and the American college of Neurosurgery. She has also been awarded three honorary degrees – doctor of humane letters honorary degrees from the University of Detroit-Mercy in 1997 and Roosevelt University in 2014, and a doctor of science from the University of Southern Connecticut in 1999. Dr. Canady was also featured in a Nickelodeon Black History Month short animation that aired in February of 2015 to celebrate her achievement of being the first African-American Woman to become a Neurosurgeon.