First female African-American neurosurgeon to speak at commencement ceremony

By Shawn Gakhal Dr Alexa Canady - courtesy U.S National Library of Medicine

Alexa Canady, the first African-American woman to become a neurosurgeon in the United States, will present this year’s commencement speech at the graduation ceremony on May 2.

Canady is set to receive an honorary degree at the 10 a.m. ceremony for graduates of Roosevelt University’s College of Arts and Sciences and Chicago College of Performing Arts.

“I accepted the honorary degree because I like the mission of Roosevelt and the role it has played in Chicago,” Canady said. “Also, an old classmate and friend, Lynn Weiner Ph.D., is professor of history at Roosevelt.”

Canady first developed an interest in medicine when she attended a health careers summer program for minority students while attending the University of Michigan.

After graduating in 1971 with a degree in zoology, she entered into the school’s medical graduate program and received her MD.

At this time, women accounted for less than 10 percent of medical students.

Canady talked about the changes, now that women account for a much larger percentage of medical students.

“I was certainly part of the second major wave of women in medicine,” she said. “In the late 1800s, in Boston, a significant percentage of all physicians were women. Those numbers went away, and we were happy with 10 percent in the 1970s.”

Even though the overtly male- and white-dominated field of medicine discouraged Canady at first, she moved forward and was accepted as a surgical intern at Yale-New Haven Hospital in 1976.

After her internship, she accepted a position at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Neurosurgery, where she became the first female African-American neurosurgery resident in the United States.

In 1985, she became a faculty member of the Wayne State University School of Medicine, Department of Neurosurgery, where she eventually attained a chair position in 1998. She would hold that position until 2001.

Canady explained what keeps her motivated to succeed.

“One should not drive to succeed; one should try to do the best work they can,” Canady said. “The desire to do that never waning.”

In 2004, Canady accepted a position with Sacred Heart Medical Group in Pensacola, Fla. She currently holds the title of pediatric neurosurgeon at Sacred Heart.

With the graduation and commencement ceremony just a few weeks away, Canady described what message she wants to send to the new graduates.

“The first and most important step to accomplishing something is to overcome the self doubt and outside skeptics who say it is not possible.”

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