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Dr. Alexa Irene Canady

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1950

Medical School

University of Michigan Medical School



Career Path

Surgery: Neurological
Surgery: Pediatric
Dr. Alexa Irene Canady


Dr. Alexa Canady was the first African American woman in the United States to become a neurosurgeon.


I attended a summer program for minority students at the University of Michigan after my junior year. I worked in Dr. Bloom's lab in genetics and attended a genetic counseling clinic. I fell in love with medicine.


Alexa Irene Canady had almost dropped out of college as an undergraduate, but after recovering her self-confidence she went on to qualify as the first African American woman neurosurgeon in the United States.

Alexa Canady earned a B.S. degree in zoology from the University of Michigan in 1971, and graduated from the medical school there in 1975. "The summer after my junior year," she explains, "I worked in Dr. Bloom's lab in genetics and attended a genetic counseling clinic. I fell in love with medicine." In her work as a neurosurgeon, she saw young patients facing life-threatening illnesses, gunshot wounds, head trauma, hydrocephaly, and other brain injuries or diseases. Throughout her twenty-year career in pediatric neurosurgery, Dr. Canady has helped thousands of patients, most of them age ten or younger.

Her career began tentatively. She almost dropped out of college while a mathematics major, because "I had a crisis of confidence," she has said. When she heard of a chance to win a minority scholarship in medicine, "it was an instant connection." Her additional skills in writing and debate helped her earn a place in the University of Michigan Medical School, and she graduated cum laude in 1975.

Such credentials still could not shield her from prejudice and dismissive comments. As a young black woman completing her surgical internship at Yale-New Haven Hospital in 1975, on her first day of residency, she was tending to her patients when one of the hospital's top administrators passed through the ward. As he went by, she heard him say, "Oh, you must be our new equal-opportunity package." Just a few years later, while working as a neurosurgeon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia from 1981 to 1982, her fellow physicians voted her one of the top residents.

Dr. Canady was chief of neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital of Michigan from 1987 until her retirement in June 2001. She holds two honorary degrees: a doctorate of humane letters from the University of Detroit-Mercy, awarded in 1997, and a doctor of science degree from the University of Southern Connecticut, awarded in 1999. She received the Children's Hospital of Michigan's Teacher of the Year award in 1984, and was inducted into the Michigan Woman's Hall of Fame in 1989. In 1993, she received the American Medical Women's Association President's Award and in 1994 the Distinguished Service Award from Wayne State University Medical School. In 2002, the Detroit News named Dr. Canady Michiganer of the Year.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

Convincing the neurosurgery chairman that I was not a risk to drop out or be fired, a disaster in a program where there are only one or two residents per year. I was the first African American woman [in the department]. Along with that, my other greatest obstacle was convincing myself that someone would give me a chance to work as a neurosurgeon.

How do I make a difference?

I tried hard to be accessible to patients and to make them unafraid of me so we could have free and open conversations. We also tried to arrange the patient care considering the needs of the families.

Who was my mentor?

In College: Dr. Art Bloom — he opened my eyes to the joy of life.

In Life: Dr. Luis Schut, former chair at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia — he taught me how to be a neurosurgeon and he tried to arrange access to all professional opportunities after I finished his training.

In Residency: Dr. Shelby Chou — he was a joy to observe his intelligence, logic, and surgical skill.

How has my career evolved over time?

I was worried that because I was a black woman, any practice opportunities would be limited. By being patient-centered, the practice growth was exponential.

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