Alexa Irene Canady
November 7, 1950 –
Notable: Medical doctor
Alexa Canady was born in Lansing, Michigan, the second of her parents’ two children. Her mother, Elizabeth Hortense, was an educator and her father, Clinton Canady, Jr., was a dentist which provided a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Living just outside of Lansing, Alexa and her older brother were the only Black children at their elementary school. Their mother encouraged them to ignore others who might regard them as “tokens” and instead take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves.
During the summer after the second grade, Canady’s grandmother came to visit from Tennessee where she was a professor. While in town, her grandmother was taking a course in testing and Canady volunteered to participate in the study. When Canady performed very well on the initial exam she was brought in for additional tests. Her grandmother’s professor informed her parents that she had performed incredibly well on the exams and was exceptionally intelligent.
This was a surprise to her parents as Canady’s grades in school had been average. The discovery of her brilliance resulted in Canady skipping a grade and gave her a boost in confidence. Canady wouldn’t find out until years later that her parents had been in contact with her school which led to her teacher being fired. There was a discrepancy between her performance on the aptitude tests and her school grades because her teacher had been switching her high grades with the average scores of a White student in the class.
In high school, Canady was focused on pursuing her dreams of becoming a mathematician. She enrolled at the University of Michigan where she played lacrosse (which she hated) and was a member of the debate team for two years (which she loved). It was around this time that she began having second thoughts about mathematics. Feeling lost, she stopped studying and going to class which affected her grades and landed her on academic probation.
Lacking direction, Canady remained at school for the summer and worked on the school newspaper where she was offered a fairly well-paying job as an editor. During the summer before her senior year, her brother passed along a tip about a minority health scholarship program to which she applied and was accepted. The program allowed her to attend lectures and spend time in a human genetics lab which sparked her passion for medicine. Canady changed her major to zoology to graduate on time while meeting the prerequisites for medical school.
Of the 200 students who were enrolled in Canady’s medical school class, only about 25 were women, and of those women only five or so were Black. The program operated like an old boys club where the female students were often ignored and made to feel unwelcome. This was new and unusual treatment for Canady’s White female classmates. But as a Black woman in often all-White spaces, she’d grown accustomed to being treated this way and used it as motivation to succeed.
Having completed medical school with honors, Canady turned her focus to residency. She had initially planned to study internal medicine but a two-year course during medical school sparked an interest in neurosurgery. It was difficult to gain entry to residency programs, especially in neurosurgery, a very male-dominated field. Canady was rejected from various programs and discouraged by advisors from pursuing neurosurgery but eventually prevailed and was accepted for a surgical internship at Yale.
She was later accepted into residency at the University of Minnesota. Yet, her fight didn’t stop there as on her first day a senior member of the faculty flippantly addressed her as the program’s “new equal-opportunity package.” But she remained steadfast in the pursuit of her dreams.
Upon completion of the residency program, Alexa Canady became the first Black female neurosurgeon in America. She went on to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery and received additional training at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. During her career, she also worked at Henry Ford Hospital and Children’s Hospital of Michigan where she performed surgeries to treat both trauma and neurological conditions.
In addition to performing surgeries, Canady served as the director of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital. She was also a researcher and professor of neurosurgery until her first retirement in 2001. After relocating to Pensacola, Florida, with her husband she came out of retirement. There was no local pediatric neurosurgeon which meant that families would have to travel for hours to obtain care. She worked part-time at Pensacola’s Sacred Heart Hospital to treat patients and establish a pediatric neurosurgery department before retiring again.
- Biography.com Editors. 2020. “Alexa Canady.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. September 3, 2020. https://www.biography.com/scientist/alexa-canady.
- Canady, Alexa. 2012. “Alexa Canady.” National Women’s Law Center. June 12, 2012. https://www.nwlc.org/title-ix/alexa-canady.html.
- Pitsch, Rosemarie. 2021. “Dr. Alexa Canady: The First Black Female Neurosurgeon in the US.” Doximity. January 26, 2021. https://opmed.doximity.com/articles/dr-alexa-canady-the-first-black-female-neurosurgeon-in-the-us?_csrf_attempted=yes.
- Canady, Alexa. 2020. “What It Meant to Me.” Leaders & Best Impact. The Regents of the University of Michigan. February 24, 2020. https://leadersandbestimpact.umich.edu/story/what-it-meant-to-me/.
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