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BACKGROUND: Although general practitioners (GPs) play a central role in responding to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in Australia, the social history of their contribution in the early years has remained largely untold. METHODS: In-depth interviews were conducted with 21 GPs who provided HIV care between 1982 and 1996. De-identified transcripts were broadly coded in NVivo, then analysed for themes regarding GP experiences during the early years. RESULTS: Participants recalled a time of death, fear and prejudice, with large numbers of patients diagnosed with and dying from a highly stigmatised disease. An enduring emotional legacy resulted, with GPs developing survival strategies such as better managing relationships with patients, seeking mental health support and reducing working hours. DISCUSSION: These GPs represent the first generation of GPs in Australia caring for people with HIV. Understanding their experiences can inform and inspire the next generation, who inherit a much brighter future for HIV care.