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Philip D. Reister Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Philip D. Reister

Truman Family Physician, 1955-1970.

Overland Park, Kansas
June 20, 2001
by Raymond H. Geselbracht

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened July, 2007
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page |Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
Philip D. Reister

Overland Park, Kansas
June 20, 2001
by Raymond H. Geselbracht


GESELBRACHT: It’s June 20, 2001, and with me is Dr. Philip D. Reister and I’m going to ask him some questions about his relationships with President Truman and Mrs. Truman and with Dr. Wallace Graham, President Truman’s physician. Dr. Reister, could you, just for the record, tell your name and the date and place of birth, your educational background, and how you began your career in Kansas City.

REISTER: It’s Philip with one L, and Douglas after Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., who was doing Liberty Bond drives and my folks saw him and decided to name me after him; and my last name is spelled R-e-i-s-t-e-r, which is pronounced Reister (rye-ster) accurately, but my family pronounces it Reister (ree-ster) because there was so much anti-German sentiment during World War I.

I was born November 9, 1918, in Lansing, Michigan and then I lived in Charlotte, which is 18 miles from there. I always worked two or three jobs from the time I was about 10 years old. I worked at a drug store and that’s where I served a pharmacist apprenticeship. And then I went to Michigan State College when it had 3,800 students, and now it’s close to 100,000, I think. I got my bachelor’s degree in chemistry and bacteriology and then I worked with the Michigan State Public Health Laboratory and the


Lansing, Michigan, branch of Bell Telephone. And the NYA [National Youth Agency], famous program that Roosevelt instituted, helped put me through college. And then I took ROTC for additional money and came up with a second lieutenancy, and then that made me eligible for military service as soon as I finished school. I entered the Army, went to the field artillery in 1942, then was sent to the 79th Division at Camp Picket and was with the 79th Division throughout the war in Western Europe. We went over with an advance party on the Queen Mary from Ft. Hamilton to Greenwich, Scotland and wintered there. Then we went in at D Day plus eight and fought throughout the European campaign and I got out without being wounded. I earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and a Croix de Guerre, as well as a unit presidential ribbon.

After this, I went to Washington University at St. Louis on the GI Bill. I earned my medical degree there. Then, during the Korean War, I went back into the service at Walter Reed Hospital, where I took my internship. That is where I met Dr. Graham, he was chief of a general surgical section, which was a part-time position, and was also physician for the White House. And during the time I worked with him, he offered me the position as assistant physician to the White House, which I turned down partly because, as Dr. Graham said, Vice President Barkley wouldn’t follow his medical advice. Also, a good number of the people we treated at Walter Reed were Senators who were there for imbibing too much. And I thought life was a little too short to do that sort of thing, so I turned it down. When I finished my residency, which included four years in general surgery and four months in oncological surgery at Ellis Fischel Hospital in Columbia, Missouri, I joined Dr. Graham in 1955 here in Kansas City. I began to have contact with Mr. and Mrs. Truman. Initially they came into the office occasionally, and


then I made a few house calls out at the Truman home.

It’s interesting that I came to Kansas City not too long after Dr. Graham had done the cholecystectomy on Mr. Truman and he ended up with a pseudo membranous colitis. He almost died. Dr. Graham was so harried, he was getting calls from all over the United States telling him how to treat Mr. Truman. The press was there at old Research Hospital. He had to go out the back door to avoid the press, they were really hounding him. But Mr. Truman survived with Dr. Graham’s care and went on to live a number of years.

I did see Mr. Truman on occasion at Walter Reed Hospital. There was a presidential suite upstairs. There were no handles on the doors, it was just one big hall, and unless you knew how to get in, it was a more or less secret entrance.

When Mr. Truman was treated in Kansas City there was always a T-man [a Secret Service agent]. For example, Mr. Truman was involved in dedicating the new Research Hospital, and when he was there as a patient, there was always a T-man sitting in the hall, so we always knew where Mr. Truman was because the T-man was sitting out there. And on one occasion when the beds were full, they put Mr. Truman in pediatrics. (Laughter) It was always a private room, of course.

On another occasion when Truman was in the hospital, Mr. Nixon was the President. Mr. Truman didn’t have much respect for Mr. Nixon, he called him, personally I heard him call him, “Tricky Dicky.” (Laughter) I had a Nixon campaign button in my lapel at the time and my scrub nurse, the circulating nurse, made me take it off because she knew what Mr. Truman’s feelings were about Mr. Nixon.

When I made the house calls it was interesting. Mr. Truman had an old timer that


was a driver, I don’t remember his name, and he was always present out around the grounds there or in the garage.

GESELBRACHT: Was that Mike Westwood?

REISTER: Yes, Mike Westwood, right.

My children were fortunate to be able to visit Mr. Truman in his home early in my acquaintance with him, and they have pictures of themselves draped around him, sitting around his chair in his living room. This is really a nice personal photograph.

Mrs. Truman had over the years written a cook book, which was published in…I’ve got a copy of that and also a number of copies of items by Mr. Truman. I went to several dinners with Mr. Truman. On one occasion his aide…the general, what was his name?

GESELBRACHT: Harry Vaughan.

REISTER: Harry Vaughan, General Vaughan, sat next to me, and we were talking about the deep freezer incident, and he said it was just cardboard and his wife “kicked a hole in the damn thing” to quote him. (Laughter) But Mr. Truman, on occasions when he was asked a difficult question about a decision he had made, such as that to drop the atomic bomb, would say, “I made my decision based on future generations.” And most people are aware of the fact that he said he slept well after he made the decision to drop the atomic bomb because he saved not only American lives, but actually Japanese lives too,


because they would have fought to the last man, woman and child.

GESELBRACHT: Dr. Reister, you mentioned that you treated President Truman a few times at Walter Reed Hospital.

REISTER: No, I didn’t treat him, I saw him at Walter Reed. I didn’t treat him until I came to Kansas City. He had some pulmonary congestion and so forth. Along that line, he had fallen at home and cut his knee. Mrs. Truman and Mr. Truman were to go to Florida for the winter and he had sutures in his knee and Mrs. Truman ended up taking his sutures out for him down in Florida.

GESELBRACHT: When did you first begin to treat him?

REISTER: That would have been after ’55 and continued for about another 15 years after that. But Mrs. Truman, when she came to the office, most of the time it was for her arthritis, affecting her knees. And I injected her knees because she said my partner hurt her and I didn’t.

GESELBRACHT: Did she start coming to you about the same time, 1955?


GESELBRACHT: Did you usually treat her?


REISTER: It depended. If she came for her knee problem and needed an injection, that might be uncomfortable, and I gave it to her. She requested me. For routine things, Dr. Graham would generally treat Mr. Truman. But I would see him and he was always very friendly and not only with me, but with everybody, he was just a friendly individual, with our staff people and so forth.

The last time I saw Mrs. Truman was in the basement of Research Hospital. I had gotten a divorce and I knew how she felt about divorces and I was trying to avoid her. She saw me, and said, “Dr. Reister, you come here.” I thought, “Uh Oh, I’m in trouble.” (Laughter) She said, “How come you didn’t come over and speak to me?” I told her I hadn’t seen her.

She was a very modest woman.  She would not allow Dr. Graham, or me, to do a pelvic examination or check her breasts.  And it because of this, when she finally came in to see us in May 1959 she had a lesion in the left breast that was literally grapefruit size and it was a cystosarcoma phyllodes, which can be benign or can be malignant.  Well, the good Lord was with her for it turned out benign.  But it was literally grapefruit size.  And when we put her in the hospital and did the surgery, Dr. Graham deferred to me because I had this special oncological training at Ellis Fischel.  But anyway, before surgery I went ahead and took a photograph of this breast with the lesion in it.

GESELBRACHT:  That’s the photograph that you gave to the Truman Library that shows Mrs. Truman lying on the table?


REISTER:  Yes, it’s the only such photograph in existence, as far as I know.

GESELBRACHT:  And presumably Mrs. Truman did not know she was being photographed.

REISTER:  No, she did not.  And, then when the pathological report came out, the tissue reports ca