Canady, Alexa 1950–

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Alexa Canady 1950


At a Glance


In 1976, Alexa Canady became the first African-American woman to enter the field of neurosurgery as a physician in training. Since then, Canady has become one of the top specialists in the United States, and her office at Childrens Hospital in Detroit has emerged as a leader in pediatric neurosurgery under her watch. From across the Midwest, families of patients of all ages with particularly baffling neurological disorders or deeply entrenched brain tumors come to Canady for consultation. Job offers to serve as medical-school dean regularly come her way as well, but Canady loves her high-stress, hands-on job. Things are possible here that wouldnt be possible elsewhere, she told Detroit Free Press writer Patricia Anstett about her work. I love working at this hospital. Its been joyous. Ill work until its no longer fun.

Canady was, by her own admission, a gifted but opinionated youngster. Born in 1950 in Lansing, Michigan, she was the only daughter of two graduates of historic black colleges. Her father. Clinton Canady was an alumnus of the Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry, while her mother, Hortense, had graduated from Fisk University. Hortense Canady, active in numerous civic and volunteer organizations, also served as national president of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, and was the first black elected to the local school boardthough not when Canady and her brother were the sole African-American students in their elementary school. Canady was a bright student, and in second grade scored extremely high on a standardized reading test. Her teacher, uneasy, then altered the records to give the high score to a white boy in the class, but was later discovered and fired.

Canady won a National Achievement Scholar award in 1967, the year she graduated from high school and entered the University of Michigan. Her first declared major was math, but she soon came to realize that she lacked the zeal for the subject that she witnessed in her fellow students. She also earned only average grades, but began writing for the school newspaper and learned about a minority health-careers program from her brother one day. She entered the Universitys pre-med program, and earned her undergraduate degree in 1971. Accepted into Michigans College of Medicine, she was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha Honorary Medical Society and graduated with a cum laude distinction in 1975.

For a year, Canady interned at New Haven Hospital, which was affiliated with Yale University, and then applied for a residency in neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota. She became the first black female to enter the field in American history. When I got a residency in neurosurgery, I got it not because Im smarter than somebody forty years ago, but because the politics were such that they needed a black woman and I was there and qualified, Canady said in Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed the World. I had impeccable credentials coming out of medical school, but there was an undercurrent of, How can you, a black woman, have the audacity to want to do this? Dont you know that youve got a double whammy? Well, I came along at a time when it offered

At a Glance

Born November 7, 1950 in Lansing, Ml; daughter of Clinton Jr. (a dentist) and Hortense (a civic activist) Canady; married George Davis (a retired Navy recruiter), June 18, 1988. Education: University of Michigan, B.S., 1971, M.D. (cum laude), 1975.

Career: University of Pennsylvania, instructor in neu-rosurgery, 1981-82; Henry Ford Hospital, instructor in neurosurgery, 1982-83; Wayne State University, School of Medicine, clinical instructor, 1985, clinical associate professor, 1987-90, associate professor of neurosurgery, 1990-97, professor of neurosurgery, 1997-; also vice chairman, department of neurosurgery, 1991-; Childrens Hospital of Michigan, pediatrie neurosurgeon, 1983-86, assistant director of neurosurgery, 1986-87, chief of neurosurgery, 1987-.

Member: American College of Surgeons, American Association of Neurological Surgeons, Congress of Neurological Surgeons, American Medical Association, National Medical Association, American Society of Pediatrìe Neurosurgery, Michigan State Medical Society.

Awards: Womens Medical Association citation, 1975; Teacher of the Year, Childrens Hospital of Michigan, 1984; Woman of the Year Award, Detroit Club of National Association of Negro Business & Professional Womens Club, 1986; Candace Award, National Coalition of 100 Black Women, 1986; Michigan Womens Hall of Fame; Woman of the Year, American Womens Medical Association, 1993; honorary degree, Mary-grove College, 1994; Athena Award, University of Michigan Alumnae Council, 1995.

Addresses: OfficeChildrens Hospital of Michigan, 3901 Beaubien, 2nd Floor, Ambulatory Bldg., Detroit, MI 48201.

them a double positive. They could fulfill the quotas and say, I finished woman. I finished black, and all it took was one person instead of two. So that became a positive for me.

Canady spent the next five years training at the University of Minnesota. After a fellowship in pediatrie neurosurgery at Childrens Hospital in Philadelphia between 1981 and 1982, she then returned to her home state to take a post with Detroits Henry Ford Hospital as a member of its neurosurgery department. In 1983, she was hired by Childrens Hospital of Michigan. By 1987, she had become head of its neurosurgery department, and as such performs about a dozen surgeries in a week. Many of them involve extracting cancerous tumors from the brain or spine, or are performed in order to find and correct an abnormality that is causing seizures. Surgeries to relieve hydroencephalus, a common birth defect, are also common for Canady. Under her aegis, Childrens Hospital has also achieved a reputation for saving youngsters with gunshot wounds. One of the joys of medicine is, you get to be part of the interior of peoples lives, Canady told Anstett. If you think you are the grand pooh-bah, and deigning to talk to people, then it becomes a relationship of unequals. You cant be the grand pooh-bah without all the people that make a hospital work. Nothing works without everybody. And the patient has the information you need.

Canady has taught at the Wayne State University Medical School, whose campus is located in the same medical center campus that houses Childrens Hospital, since 1985. She became a professor of neurosurgery in 1997. She has won numerous professional and service awards, including being named Woman of the Year by the American Womens Medical Association in 1993, as well as being inducted into the Michigan Womens Hall of Fame. In 1988, Canady married retired Navy recruiter George Davis, which she told Anstett was the best thing I did with my lifeEvery-thing else is relatively conditional. But with my marriage, I dont have to be anything different than who I am. Her husband regularly brings her lunch during her twelve-hour work days. She likes to relax at home by playing Nintendo, and stays up as late as her schedule permits to spend time with her husband.

Despite her work load, Canady says she often makes time when mentor programs ask her to take a high school student around for the day. I do it because its important, she said in the Free Press interview. If you want to be something, you have to perceive that something is possible. She takes pains to point out that her own career path was marked by obstacles, despite her natural academic gifts and loving, supportive family. You do a disservice to children if you paint it as too rosy. They hit a bump and feel like a failure. Well, everybody fails at some time or another. But no one talks about it.



Lanker, Brian, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed the World, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989.

Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.


Detroit Free Press, March 8, 1999.

U.S. News and World Report, February 13, 1989, p. 55.

Carol Brennan

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Canady, Alexa 1950–

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