Dr. Alexa Irene Canady was the first black neurosurgeon in the United States. Born in 1950, her father was a dentist, and her mother was a teacher and the president of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Her strong work ethic, inspired by her parents, contributed to a track record of academic excellence. Even before she went to college, Dr. Canady was elected as a National Achievement Scholar.

Pursuing Academic Excellence

Dr. Canady earned a B.S. degree from the University of Michigan in 1971. She went on to graduate from medical school cum laude in 1975. She was an intern at Yale-New Haven Hospital. She began making history when she earned a residency in neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota in her quest to become the first African American female brain surgeon. Her love for children led her to a pediatric neurosurgery fellowship at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.

Overcoming the Obstacles of Discrimination and Bias

Dr. Canady endured ongoing racial discrimination on her road to become the first black neurosurgeon. At an early age, she and her brother were the only diverse students in a school of white children. Her elementary school teacher even gave her test scores to a white student because she was so concerned that a black student was outperforming her white counterparts. When she started her medical residency, her presence was labeled “the new equal-opportunity package” by a senior administrator of the medical school. Still, Dr. Canady persevered.

Making History as the First Black Brain Surgeon

Superior intellect and an innovative mindset landed Dr. Canady prestigious roles as the first black brain surgeon. She worked in pediatric Neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania Children’s Hospital and then went on to become the Chief of Neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan. She became a professor and researcher at Wayne State University.

Committed to Research and Innovation

As the first African American female brain surgeon, Dr. Canady embarked upon groundbreaking research that would transform the field of neurosurgery. She became known for her work on pediatric hydrocephalus, congenital spinal abnormalities, brain tumors and pediatric trauma. She created an anti-siphon shunt that changed the way that hydrocephalus was treated with the smallest of patients. Dr. Canady is known for her research and development of programmable valves that evaluate pressure changes related to the treatment of head injuries and shunt technology.

Service to Others

Committed to serving others, Dr. Canady volunteered and was engaged in the broader community. She retired in 2001, but her interest in civic engagement was never ending. She moved to Florida and soon realized that the community was without pediatric neurosurgery resources. Dr. Canady’s desire to help others drew her out of retirement. She began a new role part-time as a pediatric neurosurgeon at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola.

Recipient of Several Honors

In addition to academic honors throughout her academic journey, Dr. Canady was recognized for her groundbreaking work as a renowned neurosurgeon. Here is a list of her many awards and honors:

  • Top Resident at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
  • Outstanding Young Woman in America
  • Inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame
  • American Medical Women’s Association President’s Award
  • Distinguished Service Award from Wayne State University Medical School
  • Teacher of the Year by the Children’s Hospital of Michigan
  • Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women
  • Inducted into the Congress of Neurological Surgeons
  • Member of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons
  • Member of the Society of Pediatric Neurosurgery
  • Member of the American college of Neurosurgery
  • Honorary Doctorate of Human Letters from the University of Detroit-Mercy
  • Honorary Doctorate from Roosevelt University
  • Honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Southern Connecticut
  • Featured in a Nickelodeon Black History Month short animation film
  • Selected as the Michiganer of the Year by the Detroit News
  • Woman of the Year from the Detroit Club 

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