Mary Victor (M. V.) Mayfield (1847?–1929)
Mary Victor (M. V.) Mayfield was a woman who came to Mena (Polk County) in 1918 and practiced medicine in the guise of a man for seven or eight years. A small, kind, and peaceful citizen, she soon became “the cancer doctor.” She put Mena in the national news for the events of January 23, 1926, when her identity as a woman was revealed by the news media.
Little is known about M. V. Mayfield’s early life. She later claimed that her gender deception began in England—her parents needed a son, not a daughter, to “protect property rights,” so they dressed her as a boy and raised her in disguise. Mayfield carried the masquerade into adulthood by smoking a pipe and drinking a little liquor when it was available. She explained her never needing to shave by a past application of an “old Indian remedy” that made the daily chore unnecessary. Its formula was, of course, kept secret.
Mayfield arrived in Mena in 1918. She lived and conducted a medical practice in rented rooms above the Central Meat Market at 709 Mena Street, passing as a man before friends, patients, and other doctors. However, in 1926, at age seventy-nine, she was found very ill in her quarters. Dr. W. C. Vandiver was called to treat Mayfield. When her condition declined, her caregivers discovered her secret while giving her a bath.
As the news spread, the small town in western Arkansas was put on the national map for its he-to-she doctor story. Calls came from news people in Fort Smith (Sebastian County); Little Rock (Pulaski County); Muskogee, Oklahoma; Kansas City, Missouri; St. Louis, Missouri; Chicago, Illinois; and New York City.
Mayfield was not able to pay her medical bills at the time and asked the photographer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, F. A. Behymer, for a $10 donation. Friends of the doctor arranged for her care in the home of a woman named Sharp. People feared Mayfield would die without telling her life story, and a national effort was made to fill in details. Word came of two marriages to women and a jail fire in which she was thought to have been killed. A letter from Belvidere, Illinois, claimed Dr. Mayfield was married and “frequented saloons and poolhalls.” She also claimed to have worked for the government in Washington DC, though this was later repudiated. More questions emerged than were ever answered.
In a few months, Mayfield recovered and left Mena. The August 3 issue of the Mena Star printed a letter from Mayfield saying she was living in David City, Nebraska. She returned to Mena by 1927 but had to become a ward of the county for two years in the county farm at Rust (now Potter). She died on August 24, 1929, carrying most of her life story with her. She was buried in Gann Cemetery, south of Mena, as a pauper in an unmarked grave, and, as she had wished, in men’s clothing, with the service performed by a woman, Fannie Vise.
For additional information:
Coogan, Harold. “Dr. M. V. Mayfield.” Mena Star. January 19, 1986.
Vail, Roy. Mena and the Queen Wilhelmina Inn, a Brief History. Mena, AR: Desert Biological Publications, 1995.
Williams, Troy, and Leon Toon, eds. History of Polk County. Dallas: Curtis Media Corp., 1988.
Last Updated: 05/10/2010