You would be hard-pressed to find a better role model than Dr. Alexa Canady. Alexa Irene Canady was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1950. The daughter of a dentist and a teacher, Canady was encouraged to pursue her education.
She entered the University of Michigan as a mathematics major, and, like many of us, considered dropping out due to shattered confidence. But she didn’t give up! She changed majors and finished her Bachelor’s degree in Zoology in 1971. While in school, Canady attended a summer program in genetics for minority students and fell in love with medicine. She finished her medical degree cum laude from the University of Michigan in 1975. After a year-long surgical internship at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, she began her neurosurgery residency at the University of Minnesota.
In 1981, Dr. Canady finished her residency and became the first African American woman neurosurgeon in the United States. It wasn’t an easy journey; on her first day of residency alone, a senior administrator said, “Oh, you must be our new equal-opportunity package.”
She also had to work hard to convince her department chairman that she wouldn’t be a drop-out or firing risk. After residency, Dr. Canady took a position at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia as a pediatric neurosurgery fellow.
Dr. Canady began working at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan in 1982. In 1984, she became the first African American woman to be certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery. She became Chief of Neurosurgery in 1987, specializing in hereditary spinal abnormalities, trauma, and brain tumors.
She moved to Florida with her husband, George Davis, in 2001 and continued to work as a consultant and part-time surgeon at the Sacred Heart Hospital. After her retirement in 2012, she wrote a piece for National Women’s Law Center in which she said, “Looking back, what stands out in my memory are the special relationships I had with my young patients… I watched them grow up. I got up in the middle of the night to care for them. I cared for every single one of them as if they were my own.”
Dr. Canady received many awards for her service to her field and patients, including the Children’s Hospital of Michigan’s Teacher of the Year Award in 1984, the 1988 Mercy Medallion from the University of Detroit Mercy, and the 1993 American Medical Women’s Association President’s Award. She was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989, joining Rosa Parks and later her own mother, Hortense Golden Canady (inducted in 2002).
In an interview this year with Judy Sarasohn about her place in black history, Dr. Canady said, “For me it didn’t mean as much at the time as it did for other people, for young girls. Even if they’re not going to be surgeons, or even be in medicine, they can see there’s a world open to them.”
Today, women continue to make history in neurosurgery. Just last year, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine accepted its first black female neurosurgery resident, Dr. Nancy Abu-Bonsrah.
Though women are still drastically underrepresented in the field, making up just 5 percent of practicing neurosurgeons certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery, the number of female neurosurgeons has increased in recent years.
Dr. Canady helped open the door for American women to be neurosurgeons, and it’s up to all of us to help young women walk through it.
Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Monday in the Women’s Center, 2 – 3 pm.
(Photo credit National Library of Medicine)