Mary Evelyn McNeill was born in Lee County, North Carolina, on Oct. 16, 1929, the second child of Lacy Dixon McNeill and Mary Lee Watson McNeill. She was reared on the Lee County farm of her parents with her elder brother Robert Dixon (Bobby) McNeill, her sister Virginia Ruth McNeill Morris, and her younger brothers Harold Lacy McNeill, Charles Watson McNeill, and James Ronald (Ron) McNeill. McNeill attended Jonesboro School for 12 years, graduating in 1947 as salutatorian and receiving honors as "most athletic" and "most likely to succeed." McNeill attended Elon College from 1947 to 1949. She transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for her junior and senior years to major in health and physical education. After receiving her degree from UNC, McNeill taught for two years in Danville, Virginia. She played for the Dan River Varsity Girl Cagers, which won the State AAU tournament in Richmond.
Deciding to become a physical therapist, McNeill took advantage of the U.S. Army’s "get-paid-while-you-train" opportunity to learn physical therapy at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio,Texas, in exchange for a two-year commitment. Her commissioning in 1953 as a second lieutenant in the Women's Medical Specialist Corps led to a long career in the Army Reserve, culminating in her retirement in 1990 as a colonel in the Durham-based 3274th U.S. Army Hospital Reserve Unit. At her retirement ceremony, Colonel McNeill was awarded the Legion of Merit, commissioned by President George Herbert Walker Bush.
McNeill worked at Fort Sam's Brooke General Hospital, gaining experience in the burn center. She extended her enlistment one year with an assignment to Fort Riley, Kansas, to deliver the acute, short-term care offered by station hospitals. After her discharge in 1956, McNeill moved to Durham to work in Veteran's Hospital. After filling an opening as chief therapist at Watts Hospital a private facility in Durham, McNeill came under fortuitous influence of Dr. Everett I. Bugg, Jr., an orthopedic surgeon who administered the hospital's physical therapy department.
Dr. Bugg assisted McNeill in gaining admission to Duke University. She used a scholarship from the American Physical Therapy Association to enroll in graduate studies in Duke’s Anatomy Department in 1963. She completed coursework within a year, but, due to her works at Watts and some health issues, took four years to complete her thesis, "The Central and Peripheral Innervation of the Sternocleidomstoid and Trapezuis Muscles in Man." McNeill entered the Medical College of Virginia in 1968 for her doctoral studies in anatomy, specializing in neuroanatomy. After completing her dissertation, "The Morphological Investigation for the Presence of Efferent Fibers in the Dorsal roots of the Mammalian Spinal Cord," she received her Ph.D. in May 1972. The next month, McNeill took a job offered by a new one-year medical school in Greenville, North Carolina, at East Carolina University.
Dr. McNeill, the new assistant professor of anatomy at the East Carolina University School of Medicine (renamed Brody School of Medicine in 1999), was hired to teach neuroanatomy to medical students as well as physical and occupational therapy students. She was the first female faculty member at the School of Medicine. During her long career at the medical school, which received is first four-year class in 1977, McNeill opened her home to students. She began traditions of hosting an end-of-first-year party and another for Halloween. Three times during her tenure, McNeill received the basic science teaching award, voted upon by students.
McNeill also weathered a difficult experience at the medical school. In the mid-1970s she learned that her work was being marginalized by the male-dominated administration through an unequal pay structure. Altered through a nationwide effort within the U.S. Department of Labor to obtain equal pay for women, she eventually filed a complaint against the university through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
After her retirement in 2001, McNeill completed her memoirs, Zero to Eighty Over Unpaved Roads. She died July 20, 2016 in Greenville, N.C.