They Called Him “Dr. Caterpillar”

by Lee C. Fosburgh
Caterpillar Heritage Services

A lifelong Peorian, Dr. Harold Vonachen achieved national recognition for his pioneering service.

Above: Caterpillar medical staff pose in the East Peoria Plant, 1944.

In 1964, Dr. Harold A. Vonachen, a man known as "Dr. Caterpillar,” retired. His career spanned over 41 years of active service in medicine—37 of them as director of medical services for Caterpillar. He was affectionately dubbed “Dr. Caterpillar” because of his personal attention to the health of all Caterpillar employees, and he left the company a worldwide leader in industrial medicine.

Upon his retirement, Dr. Vonachen said, "It isn't the job I will miss. We have many fine doctors and people to carry on the work. It's the people. They are what have made the job worthwhile. They're the finest."

During his retirement ceremony at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Peoria, the usually good-natured doctor was in a serious mood. All around him were men and women, boys and girls, learning to walk again. It was an appropriate setting for his retirement, as his life had centered on service through medicine, with emphasis on rehabilitation of the handicapped. What many do not know, however, is that this work of Dr. Vonachen’s all started at Caterpillar.

A Lifelong Peorian
The lifelong Peorian grew up on the city's north side. He was captain of Spalding's first city-champion basketball team, and he also played with Bradley and St. Louis universities. After high school, he attended Bradley University and served as a medical corpsman in World War I before working his way through St. Louis University Medical School. He opened his first office in 1923 at Second and Spencer streets.

In 1927, he was invited to serve as medical director for the two-year-old Caterpillar Tractor Co. in Peoria. In these early years, Dr. Vonachen also served as medical advisor to local manufacturers such as Sealtest, Herschel's, ABC, Hiram Walker and Hyster. He also ran the Vonachen Clinic in the Jefferson Building, serving as many as 30 new cases a day from other local industries. He was at Caterpillar one or two hours a day.

In 1929 Dr. Vonachen initiated a pre-employment physical exam for all new Caterpillar employees to ensure that people were not placed on jobs harmful to their health. He also began a program of “return-to-work physicals” to protect other workers from contagious diseases and make sure an employee was physically able to return to his job. While still a part-time medical director, Dr. Vonachen helped create both a formal safety program and a medical laboratory for Caterpillar.

World War II
In 1941, at the request of company president L.B. Neumiller, Dr. Vonachen came to Caterpillar full-time. It was during this time that he became a friend to thousands of central Illinois families while leading weekly sessions on "Health for Victory." Every week 2,000 women and children filled the Peoria Shrine to learn how to buy and cook healthful foods despite war shortages.

As the war progressed, Dr. Vonachen became aware of the problems young disabled veterans were having as they tried to adjust to civilian life, and he was determined to do something about it. Drawing on his pioneering work at Caterpillar, he developed a program for the employment of physically handicapped people that he called his "Peoria Plan for Human Rehabilitation." Initially, the program was meant to help soldiers returning with permanent physical effects from their military service, but it was eventually expanded into a comprehensive program for the re-employment of all war veterans.

The program’s purpose was to help companies like Caterpillar fulfill both the spirit and the letter of the Selective Service Act by providing, to the best of their abilities, full employment opportunities to those returning from military service. The Plan was so successful it spread to municipalities across the country, making Dr. Vonachen somewhat of a celebrity.


Dr. Vonachen, left, receives the Knudsen award from Dr. W. A. Sawyer, medical director of Eastman Kodak Co., Rochester, N. Y., and chairman of the Knudsen Award Committee. The award was presented for the "most outstanding contribution to industrial medicine in 1943-1944.

Physician of the Year
The Peoria Plan brought together 100 local employers who offered jobs to match the abilities of handicapped veterans. In 1954, in recognition of the Caterpillar handicapped program, Dr. Vonachen was honored with the Physician's Award of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. The program later earned Caterpillar the national honor of being named Employer of the Year in a ceremony at the White House. In 1964, the year of Dr. Vonachen’s retirement, Caterpillar hired over 3,000 handicapped persons.

Reviewing the medical program at Caterpillar, Dr. Vonachen said, "An industrial physician is successful only as he is given the opportunity to be by his employer. No request we ever deemed important to employee health has ever been turned down by Caterpillar leadership."

Opportunity to Serve
The plan’s success enabled the creation of Peoria’s Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, of which Dr. Vonachen was both a founder and the first president.

As a physician, Dr. Vonachen always worked with a deep feeling for people. He summed it up best when he said, "More people are still helped today by a kind word, advice or counsel of an interested doctor than by his pills." He also believed that, "In my estimation, nobody obtains any real satisfaction out of life unless he can do something for somebody else. The physician is well blessed with this opportunity and his service should never be considered unique or beyond his call of duty." iBi

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