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What exactly was it that made Elizabeth Holmes so believable to so many people?
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup gives the history of how Elizabeth Holmes started her company Theranos and how the company fell apart around her. John Carreyrou very thoroughly details every step- from Holmes’ college days to her dropping out, working with two other people on her initial idea of a wearable treatment device and how her original plans turned in to the company Theranos. The author painstakingly describes the development of the Edison machines that purported to run a large panel of blood tests from a single drop of blood and the subterfuge used to hide the truth- that the machines didn’t work, and the lab was actually used tampered machines produced by other companies- from the world.
This book has incredible detail- names, dates, places, meetings, details only available to former employees or associates of Holmes- but I couldn’t grasp what about this woman was so compelling that so many people willingly believed her fantastical claims. I remember having a discussion with some colleagues when this ‘technology’ was being introduced to the world and Holmes began to make a name for herself. None of us believed that what she was promising was actually possible. Around that time, my insurance offered an incentive that if I had a series of lab tests done at a pharmacy I would earn cash rewards. I went to the pharmacy, and the pharmacist stuck my finger (seven times) to get a single drop of blood to analyze, and then handed me a printout of my cholesterol panel. I had recently done this at my own office, so I knew this machine’s readings were likely off-base, but repeated it again at my office on a standard blood sample to see. Sure enough, the bizarro numbers at the pharmacy didn’t match either of the other samples. I don’t know what machine that pharmacy was using – it was at Walgreens, but not at one of the clinics that had planned a roll-out with Theranos- but that single-drop nonsense seemed impossible then and I find it hard to believe that so many people swallowed that story. The lack of regard for patient safety is mind-boggling- Walgreens put these clinics in stores without even testing to see if they were accurate. Theranos employees knew that the machines didn’t work, and rather than the whole lot of them sounding the alarms, only a couple had the courage to report problems.
This was a really fascinating story. I hope that the science gets there one day. I hope that the lesson of Theranos is not ‘don’t invest in new exciting science’ but instead ‘ask for proof and don’t just toss money at someone because they are in a turtleneck’.