A South Asian doctor in 1910s Oklahoma

He skipped going to Harvard to marry a White woman named Gladys

Oklahoma City Times, June 4, 1919, page 1

1. Surendra moves from Calcutta to New York

Surendra Nath Chatterjee was born into a Hindu Brahmin Bengali family in Calcutta, India on August 15, 1892. He was enrolled at Scottish Church College in Calcutta as of 1905, when he was about 13 years old.

Chatterjee immigrated to the United States in 1913, when he was about 21 years old. He started studying engineering at Cooper Union in New York City.

2. Surendra moves to Oklahoma, tries to gain citizenship

In 1915, Chatterjee attended a speech extolling the medical profession by the President of the University of Oklahoma. A newspaper described Chatterjee as being so inspired, that he moved to Oklahoma that same year to study medicine. He started studying medicine at the University of Oklahoma, most likely in Norman, OK.

Draft card for Surendra Nath Chatterjee, June 1, 2017

Chatterjee applied for citizenship in 1915. The U.S. entered World War I in 1917. So Chatterjee registered for the draft that year, when he was about 25. In his draft registration, he said he was a junior in Medicine, employed by the state university, had no wife or dependents, and was of medium height, medium weight, with black hair and black eyes.

In his draft registration, Chatterjee also wrote that he had been a head constable in the Bengal Police, working for the government. (I’m not sure how that works, given that he came to the US at about age 21.) Later that month, a local newspaper, the Cleveland County Enterprise, printed Chatterjee’s name among the list of draft registrants who “answered the nation’s call.” He ended up joining the Student Army Training Corps (like the ROTC).

3. Surendra gets his M.D., but skips out on Harvard

By 1918, Chatterjee started working as an assistant at the pathology lab, and later, as an intern at the University hospital. He received his M.D. in June 1919, and was profiled in a front page story in the Oklahoma City Times. The article described how he was set to enter Harvard in the fall to begin a two year degree program in public health, and that he planned to return to Calcutta afterwards, to “enter the service of his people.”

But Chatterjee didn’t end up at Harvard, because the Census shows Chatterjee as still living in Oklahoma as of January 1920.

4. Surendra marries a White woman from Mississippi

Surendra and Gladys Chatterjee’s 1920 Census record

According to the 1920 Census, Chatterjee was working as a general practice physician, renting a place in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
And he was apparently living with his wife Gladys Chatterjee, a 28-year-old White woman born in Mississippi. Surendra and Gladys presumably got married sometime right after he graduated.

Surendra and Gladys Chatterjee lived in Muskogee for several more years; I see their names in 1921, 1922, and 1925 city directories.

5. The story ends

For a long while, that was the last record I could find for them. I scoured death records, city directories, social security indices, census records, and more.

Then I looked at the American Medical Association’s Deceased Physicians File, and found an end to the story.

Surendra Nath Chatterjee apparently return to Calcutta, India in 1927, when he was about 35 years old. He never practiced medicine in the U.S. again.

The American Medical Association’s staff say that Chatterjee was “declared deceased as of February 25, 1961” — when he was about 68. (It’s not clear if that was the actual date of death, or just when they lost touch with him.)

Open questions, and why this matters

There are so many open questions:

  • Did Surendra stay on in Calcutta?
  • Did he and Gladys travel to Calcutta together? If so, what were their lives like?
  • Did they have kids? Or do they have other living family?
  • Why did Surendra tell the U.S. government that he was previously a head constable in the Bengal police? And was he related to the “Surendra Nath Chatterjee” who was apparently the first Indian Commissioner of Police post-independence?

I see South Asian Americans continuously ask questions like “am I Desi or American,” “is it OK to switch majors/careers and follow my passions,” “will my family hate me if I marry a non-Desi,” and far too often, “why don’t White women like me?” Stories from the past help shed light on these eternal questions.

South Asians have been living in the US since the 1680s. We have roots here. We’ve built rich and complex lives here. Our narratives matter. We’re not the first to grapple with these issues, and we won’t be the last.


  1. Photo and newspaper profile of Chatterjee from 1919
  2. Surendra Nath and Gladys Chatterjee’s 1920 census record
  3. Chatterjee’s 1917 draft registration, in his own handwriting
  4. Chatterjee’s record in the AMA Deceased Physician File

If this story is interesting, the South Asian American Digital Archive is always a great resource to discover more South Asian American history.