Raper grew up on his family's farm in Culberson, North Carolina. He is an alumnus of Kent State University where he completed an undergraduate degree in nursing in 1979. He completed a master's at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 1982 while serving in the U. S. Army and then entered the doctoral program at the UAB School of Nursing.
While working on his doctorate, which he completed in 1994, Raper assisted John Kirklin. He joined the 1917 Clinic staff in 1995, assisting Mike Saag, then was named director in April 2007. Interested in pursuing health-care advocacy, he enrolled at the Birmingham School of Law, completing his juris doctorate in 2003.
Raper is a long time officer of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing. He was given AIDS Alabama's Medical Provider of the Year award in 2001. He became a fellow of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners in 2007 and won that year's AANP-Alabama Award for Excellence. In 2009 he was inducted into the Alabama Nursing Hall of Fame.
- LeMaire, Bree (May 31, 2004) "Jim Raper, on men in nursing." NurseWeek
- Nobles, Barr (October 14, 2005) "James Raper." Health Care Heroes. Birmingham Business Journal
- "1917 Clinic director is honored by nurse practitioners" (April 16, 2007) UAB Reporter
- "UAB’s James Raper Named to Alabama Nursing Hall of Fame." (November 3, 2009) UAB Media Relations press release