Phyllis Gardner knew from the moment the 19-year-old student started talking about her “brilliant” idea that it wouldn’t work.
It was 2002, and the student was a Stanford University sophomore named Elizabeth Holmes. She had acne, brown hair, and a voice no lower than the next female undergrad. Gardner had been employed as a Professor of Medicine at the university since 1984 and was no stranger to mentoring. But something about this student was different. She wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“She came to me with [an idea for] a patch that would test for a microbe and then deliver antibiotics,” Gardner tells Refinery29 over the phone from her on-campus home. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s a lovely idea, but it won’t work.’ It was so naive. Antibiotics are not potent. That’s why you have big IV bags.” Gardner wanted to ask Holmes if she was “smoking dope,” but she didn’t. Instead, she told Holmes her idea wouldn’t work. The student, she says, refused to listen.
Now in her 60s, Gardner has been working in medicine, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and academia for more than 30 years. She also serves on the board of multiple medical companies. She’s someone you would want on your side if you were, say, an aspiring inventor in the medical field. But most of all, Gardner was, and is, a passionate advocate for women in the industry, and that’s what made her so frustrated with the young Holmes.
Holmes is now a pop culture icon, an emblem of fraud, a member of the Scammer Hall of Fame alongside Anna Delvey, Billy McFarland, and Lori Loughlin. She’s at the center of a new HBO documentary, The Inventor, a new 20/20 special, a podcast, and a 2018 best-selling book, Bad Blood — all of which Gardner appears in as a character witness for Holmes in her early years. Jennifer Lawrence will even be portraying Holmes in an upcoming feature film.
After their initial meeting, Gardner says Holmes came back once more with her patch pitch, and Gardner told her again that it was futile. Instead of belaboring the issue, she suggested Holmes find new mentors. Gardner was happy to be rid of her.
In 2003, the still 19-year-old Holmes secured backing by an impressive new board of mostly older white men (“It seems like at the beginning mostly men telling her yes, and not many people telling her no,” notes Gardner, who was friendly with many of the men on the boards). So she dropped out of Standford and introduced her grand concept to the world at large. The technology for Theranos evolved from that initial failed pitch to Gardner. As Holmes would describe in the now-eerie ads, Theranos was meant to revolutionize blood testing. Basically, a tiny prick on the finger would produce a drop of blood that could then be analyzed using their innovative new machine, The Edison. This, Holmes promised, would save lives by giving patients easier and faster access to blood tests with minimal invasiveness.
The world took notice of Theranos, but didn’t seem to notice that nothing about the technology actually worked. By 2007, the company was valued at $200 billion. In 2015, Forbes named Holmes the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, thanks to her eager and generous investors. But by 2016, her staff had grown confused and skeptical about what exactly the technology was that they’d been working on in their brand-new Palo Alto office. The cracks were starting to form.
It was very tough for me all those years, and part of it was that women were idolizing her. I didn’t like that they were idolizing a fraud.”
Gardner says she knew it all along; as a medical professional, she knew the technology behind Theranos did not — could not — work. So, when she was first contacted in 2015 by the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou as he investigated the entrepreneur’s company, she wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion. “The hubris of that just drove me insane,” she said. “Don’t call her ‘brilliant.’ She is just a whipper-snapper kid. It was very tough for me all those years, and part of it was that women were idolizing her. I didn’t like that they were idolizing a fraud.”
Gardner would next see Elizabeth Holmes later that year, when she sat across from her in a board room on the Harvard campus. But this time, Holmes wasn’t pitching Gardner — they were peers.
Gardner had heard of Holmes’ nomination to the Harvard Medical Board months before this meeting. When she opposed it, she was told it was too late to stop it. Still, she thought this might be her opportunity to voice her opinion about Holmes in an official forum. Unfortunately, most people she spoke with were still under Holmes’ spell.
“Fast forward to 2015 — it’s the [day of our board] meeting, and the day Carreyrou’s Wall Street Journal article [comes out], and I’m quoted in it [speaking negatively],” she said.
Gardner didn’t confront Holmes directly that day, knowing that this was likely the first of many bombshell articles exposing her and Theranos.
As more and more Theranos whistleblowers, like Tyler Schultz (whose grandfather, George Schultz, sat on the company’s board and who currently lives two doors down from Gardner), and Erika Cheung (who worked as a medical researcher at the company form 2013 to 2017) came forward, more companies, investors, and journalists started reevaluating everything.
While much has been said (at Refinery29 and elsewhere) about this young woman’s wardrobe, makeup, hair, manicure, and falsely deep voice — and most of her champions and backers were older white men — Gardner is quick to note that the gender dynamics at play in Holmes’ downfall only go so far: “I don’t want anyone to think this has anything to do with anti-woman bias. This has everything to do with anti-sociopath virus.”
Theranos fully shuttered in October 2018. On LinkedIn, a few people still list it as their current place of employment. Holmes awaits her trial where she faces federal prison time (she’s also currently barred from serving as an officer or director of a public company for the next decade). The charges she faces, along with her former business partner and ex-boyfriend Ramesh “Sunny” Balwan, offers “a little vindication” for Gardner, but she maintains that ultimately — after being interviewed for the documentary, the podcast, multiple articles, and talking about it with her own circle of friends — she no longer cares. “I don’t need to be part of this story, and I mean that,” she said. “I just am glad that she is done shamming the world and endangering patients. It drove me crazy.”