Theranos, the Silicon Valley company that claimed it could use tiny vials of blood to run a huge range of lab tests, has become a cultural obsession—but most of the public attention on the failed tech company has been focused on its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. In 2013, Theranos was positioned to revolutionize medicine, and Holmes, who was 19 and wore a lot of black turtlenecks, was compared to Steve Jobs.
As you’ve probably heard by now, it was all one big grift. Journalist John Carreyrou exposed Theranos in the Washington Post in 2015, reporting that its lauded Edison device could only perform 15 of the more than 240 tests it claimed to be capable of, and employees didn’t trust the accuracy of the tests it could run. At the time, Theranos was valued at $9 billion, with Holmes’ personal net worth at about $4.5 billion. But by 2016, Theranos closed its clinics as partners pulled out of deals, and Forbes had lowered Holmes’s estimated net worth to “nothing.” By 2018, Theranos was shut down and liquidated, and Holmes was charged with wire fraud.
Last week, HBO released its Theranos documentary called The Inventor, spurring a resurgence of media coverage and creepy memes of Holmes’s unblinking eyes; plus, an adaptation of Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood is in the works. Along with Fyre Festival’s Billy MacFarland and socialite scammer Anna Delvey, Holmes has become the crunchy-haired, bloodshot-eyed face of what the New York Times’ Amanda Hess has called “never-ending scam season.”
But as it happens, Holmes isn’t the only big-time founder in her bloodline. And, naturally, there’s a food angle.
As the story goes, in the late 1860s, a Hungarian immigrant named Charles Fleischmann traveled from Austria to the United States, transporting a test tube of baker’s yeast in the pocket of his vest. Fleischmann, the son of a distiller and yeast maker, was disappointed by American bread and the yeast used to make it, so he went to Austria to grab a sample of better-quality yeast.
As noted by the Chicago Tribune, at that point in America, the bread-rising process required sourdough starters, potentially bitter brewer’s yeast, or liquid yeast that Fleischmann considered inferior. Fleischmann’s vial of Austrian yeast revolutionized the bread industry. In 1943, the Fleischmann company made the first active dry yeast. First produced for the government to make bread for American soldiers during World War II, it was then sold in stores for home bakers. In 2008, Fleischmann was inducted into the American Society of Baking’s Hall of Fame, and the brand is still a leader today.
When Fleischmann’s daughter Bettie got married, the family name strayed from the yeast empire, but it seems that the test tubes and the lofty goals of disruption stayed in the family. Fleischmann’s third great-granddaughter Elizabeth Holmes is, yes, that Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos.
As Joseph Fuisz, a friend of the Holmes family, once told the podcast The Dropout, the Holmes family was very proud of its yeast empire, which, obviously, didn’t leave them destitute: Bettie Holmes, Charles Fleischmann’s daughter, reportedly donated $20 million to charity over her lifetime and filled her mansion with Chinese art that she also loaned to museums worldwide. Her husband, Dr. Christian Rasmus Holmes, was an esteemed physician who founded the Cincinnati General Hospital.
“They really took that mantle of this family history very, very seriously indeed,” Fuisz said on the podcast. “I think the parents very much yearned for the days of yore when the family was one of the richest in America. And I think Elizabeth channeled that, and at a young age.”
Even if the family’s wealth had lessened, its social capital probably didn’t: Holmes’s father was once a vice president at Enron, and her mother worked on Capitol Hill. To no surprise, Holmes went to a high-ranking and selective private high school and then Stanford for college.
If Hess’s piece had run two months later, it probably would have also included the college admissions scam, in which rich families like Full House’s Lori Laughlin and her husband, Mossimo founder Mossimo Giannulli, paid to fake test scores and athletic backgrounds so their school-hating kids could get into elite colleges. Holmes fits right in with Billy MacFarland and Anna Delvey, sure, but take the Fleischmann empire into account, and the whole thing fits right into the eternal grift of generational wealth, where people with money prove over and over that they’ll do anything to keep their big pile of money big—no matter the true cost.