Back when Elizabeth Holmes was a media darling, many of the stories about the world's youngest female self-made billionaire included the same line about her past: Elizabeth Holmes' uncle was her inspiration to invent Theranos' Edison blood-testing machine after he died of skin cancer.
"I grew up spending summers and the holidays with my uncle," Holmes began her anecdote at the TEDMED conference in 2014. "I remember his love of crossword puzzles and trying to teach us to play football. I remember how much he loved the beach. I remember how much I loved him. He was diagnosed one day with skin cancer, which all of a sudden was brain cancer and in his bones. He didn’t live to see his son grow up, and I never got to say goodbye."
After that speech, the uncle story made the rounds: "Holmes lost an uncle to cancer when she was young, and she passionately believes that putting medical information in patients' own hands will make blood testing a routine healthy habit, just like eating right and exercising," Glamour's Cindi Leive wrote in her 2015 profile and interview with Holmes.
As much as people might want to improve medicine in general, and as much as we all probably believe that better diagnoses lead to better outcomes, Holmes and whoever was helping her write speeches and prep for interviews must have agreed that big ideas alone wouldn't cut it for her. To get people on board with her mission, she needed them to know about her personal connection to it.
But now that we know how little of Theranos was based actual science, it's hard to believe in the truth of this story, too. He’s not a member of the illustrious Holmes family tree we keep hearing about. If you search on "Elizabeth Holmes" and "uncle," you will have a very hard time finding if this man ever had a name. (Though you may find the entertaining bit of trivia that '80s TV star Lorenzo Lamas is her step-uncle.)
Fortunately, in his Theranos book Bad Blood, John Carreyrou got to the bottom of this uncle mystery. It was, he says, Ron Dietz, husband of her mother's sister Elizabeth. As a girl, Holmes would visit this aunt and uncle, in Boca Raton, Florida, with her mother and brother. Dietz died 18 months before her TEDMED talk (which means it was long after she came up with the concept of the Edison). Rather brutally, Carreyrou adds that Holmes was actually never close to Dietz.
"To family members who knew the reality of their relationship, using his death to promote her company felt phony and exploitative," Carreyrou writes.
Color us not the least bit shocked.