Phyllis Gardner was one of the first people the tech entrepreneur approached with her idea for Theranos. And she was one of the first people to point out its problems.
In 2002, Elizabeth Holmes made a pilgrimage to the offices of Phyllis Gardner, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University. Gardner had held that position since 1984, and was almost 20 years into a storied career in pharmaceutical engineering.
If you happened to be a plucky undergraduate with an idea for a medical innovation that could change the world, Gardner was the one to share it with. So off Holmes went.
She was 19 then, a sophomore at the college with brown hair (she hadn’t dyed it blonde, yet) and a speaking voice at the level of an average woman. (Reportedly, after becoming an entrepreneur Holmes dropped her voice to a lower, more masculine register, though her family has disputed this.)
Holmes pitched Gardner on her dream for a product that could patch-test blood, identify bacteria and illness, and administer antiobiotics at the same time.
Sound familiar? The same thread runs through this idea and the Edison, Holmes’ blood-tests-via-finger-pricking machine peddled by her company Theranos before the business was exposed as fraudulent and its value written down from $9 billion to zero.
“She had… brown hair,” Gardner recalled, in an interview with The Sunday Times. “And she certainly didn’t have that [low] voice.”
Holmes arrived in her offices with a glowing recommendation from John Howard, a Panasonic executive who would later join Holmes on the payroll at Theranos. “He called me and said ‘I have this brilliant young woman. You have to meet her,’” Gardner said. “I’m not very good when people say ‘brilliant’ – there are two Nobel laureates on my hallway.”
Gardner listened to Holmes’ pitch and knew instantly that it wasn’t going to work.
“It was so naïve,” Gardner has recalled in interviews, and displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of how blood-testing and antiobiotics work. You need those big IV bags in order for the drug to make any kind of headway in your system – it’s not potent enough to take root via a patch.
And as for blood-testing? Pricking a finger isn’t an accurate or reliable way to test for blood. It’s not enough blood, for a start. But also, a pricked finger is a space where the drawn blood can get mixed up with a whole lot of other material. It doesn’t prove a clean sample.
Gardner told Holmes that the idea wasn’t scientifically sound. “She didn’t want to listen,” Gardner recalled to The Sunday Times. Holmes came back to pitch Gardner a second time, and again Gardner told her that her idea was scientifically unsound.
Famously, Holmes ignored her advice, dropping out of Stanford a few months later to launch Theranos. She would spend the better part of the next decade trying (and failing) to make her idea a reality, and raising hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars from investors Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos in the process.
After Holmes left Stanford, Gardner kept an eye on what her one-time hopeful student was up to. And what she heard was unsettling, to say the least. She saw Holmes shilling Theranos’ technology, despite any clear explanations of how it worked. “She was going to make it work and follow the model of ‘try it until you succeed’,” Gardner said on The Dropout podcast. “That is so completely ridiculous in terms of healthcare. When you have people’s lives at risk, you don’t do that.”
Gardner attempted to veto Holmes’ appointment to the Harvard Medical Board, unsuccessfully. (Holmes has since been expelled. Gardner remains.) When she saw Holmes appearing on the cover of Fortune, Inc, Forbes and The New York Times, Gardner “was barfing all over the place.” She also repeatedly forbade Stanford University from inviting Holmes back to give guest lectures on the subjects of entrepreneurship and biotech.
“I was in the background for a long time and I was always gnashing my teeth,” Gardner told The Sunday Times. “It irked me. Students would say ‘Can we have her come lecture in your class?’ And I’d say ‘Not on my watch, not her’ – because I thought she was fabricating data.”
Gardner was right, of course. She began sharing her concerns with her husband and with other Theranos sceptics, including a pathology blogger who had read the New Yorker’s profile of Holmes and found her claims about her blood-testing machine implausible, to say the least.
Gardner also began talking to an ex-Theranos employee, who quit the company after they began implementing their products in Walgreens pharmacy despite allegedly knowing that the technology was inaccurate and Rochelle Gibbons, the widow of Theranos’ chief scientist Ian Gibbons who suicided before being deposed in a lawsuit over a Theranos patent.
This group of people would form the backbone of investigative reporter John Carreyrou’s sources in the explosive Wall Street Journal article that blew the Theranos scandal wide open. Gardner was even quoted – quite prolifically and decisively – in Carreyrou’s first article exposing Theranos as fraudulent.
Since then, Gardner has gone on to be a key interview subject in The Dropout, the chart-topping podcast inside the scandal and The Inventor, HBO’s documentary on Holmes.
For a long time, Gardner was one of the main dissenting voices in a sea of support for Holmes and Theranos. She was also one of the only women calling Holmes out.
In the tech founder’s corner was a board of older, mostly white men, a Greek chorus of support that included two former US Secretary of States Henry Kissinger and George P Shultz, former US Secretary of Defense William Perry, former US Senator Bill Frist and former Wells Fargo Chairman and CEO Richard Kovacevich. She received investment from people including Walmart heir Sam Walton, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Robert Kraft, the owner of football team the New England Patriots, all off the back of technology that didn’t work and company information that was reportedly falsified.
While in interviews about the book Bad Blood, Carreyrou’s bestselling Holmes and Theranos exposé, the author has called Holmes “a remarkable pitch woman” and “very intelligent” – someone who “made people believe in her” through “the way she looked at you” with her big, unblinking blue eyes and her “deep voice” – Gardner doesn’t buy it.
“Those men’s brains went south in their anatomy,” Gardner mused to The Sunday Times.
“To this day, I can’t explain it,” she added. “Except to say that she’s a sociopathic liar, and a narcissist. I don’t think she’s brilliant. She’s just a good liar.”
The Inventor is on HBO in the US now and in the UK later this year.
Images: HBO, Getty