A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's a cholera belt?

April 2, 1999

Dear Cecil:

Among local Mensa members, I am acknowledged as a triviameister. In working with the local civic theater, I provide props of every description. I have, however, been stumped by a prop described only as "a cholera belt." I have consulted all the usual sources — Gray's Anatomy, Britannica, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Will Durant's The Story of Civilization, Comics Buyer's Guide, and the collected Playboy philosophy by Hugh Hefner — all to no avail. I am assailed by curiosity to the point of near dementia. You are my last hope. What the &*@#! is a "cholera belt"?

Cecil replies:

When I discussed this with my assistant, Little Ed, he thought the cholera belt was a geographic region, like the Rust Belt. I can't believe I keep this guy on the payroll.

The cholera belt was an article of clothing commonly worn as a preventative measure by British soldiers serving in India, where cholera was endemic. Basically a waistband or cummerbund made of flannel or silk, the belt was supposed to keep away the cold and damp, the theory being that a chilled abdomen would lead to cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal ailments. Doctors realized fairly early on that cholera had little to do with cold and damp and was in fact caused by fecal bacteria in drinking water. But military inertia being what it was, use of the belt persisted until after World War II.

I'm reminded of a possibly apocryphal story about gun crews in the mechanized artillery in the British Army during World War II. Supposedly standard procedure was to assign eleven men to each crew. Someone noticed that the eleventh man had nothing to do, and asked what his purpose was.

No one knew. Regulation books were consulted. At last there came a sheepish reply:

"To hold the horses." They probably all wore cholera belts, too.

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