Born in Nashville, John Tarpley grew up in Jackson, MS. He received his AB and MD degrees from Vanderbilt University. Residency training in general surgery occurred at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore . In 1993, he joined the faculty of the Vanderbilt Department of Surgery where he is Professor of Surgery and Program Director of the general surgery residency program. A Shovel Awardee in 2004, Tarpley serves as a Master Clinical Teacher in the medical school.

After residency, and prior to the return to Vanderbilt, Tarpley served at the Baptist Medical Centre, Ogbomoso, Nigeria from 1978-1993 as a surgeon, director of the general practice residency, and as Associate Lecturer in Surgery at the University of Ibadan with a focus on medical student education. He spent 4 years on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Dept. of Surgery and the Loch Raven (Baltimore) VAMC during that fifteen year period and is currently President of the Johns Hopkins Medical & Surgical Association.

His interests include esophageal cancer, hernia treatment, international health, history of medicine, and the role of spirituality in clinical medicine. He is involved with medical school electives for the latter three topics. He is the principle investigator of a John Templeton Spirituality in Medicine Curricular award through the National Institute of Healthcare Research ach year he spends several weeks in Ogbomoso, Nigeria as a surgical volunteer. He is currently the president-elect of the Association of Program Directors in Surgery and vice-president of the Association of VA Surgeons.